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SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

h 

HENRY BETT, M.A. 



LONDON 

GEORGE ALLEN f UNWIN LTD 
MUSEUM STREET 



FIRST PUBLISHED IN 



All rights reserved 

PRINTED IN GREAT BRITAIN BY 
UNWIN BROTHERS LTD., WOKINQ 



PREFACE 

I THINK, it is due to the reader, and to myself, to 
give some account of the origin of this book. In 
1927 I wrote an article in one of the quarterly 
reviews on "Some Elements of Style", which 
was afterward re-issued in my Studies in Litera- 
ture. The article attracted the attention of the 
publishers of the present work, who asked me to 
write a small handbook on similar lines. This they 
issued in 1929 under the title, How to Write 
Good English^ and then were kind enough to 
suggest that I should write a larger book on the 
subject. I mention these things merely to explain 
why I have twice returned to the theme, and 
why I have used for a second time (in a few cases) 
the same illustrative passages. 

Let me add that I have deliberately avoided, 
for the most part, the technicalities of prosody 
and phonetics, because I feel sure that there are 
many people, genuinely interested in the question 
of style, who would be sadly bored by such 
refinements, and also because I cannot help 
thinking that phonetic and prosodical analysis 
has often been carried out in a way that is very 
arbitrary and very pedantic. 



io SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

I wish to acknowledge the help of my son and 
my daughters, who have made some useful sug- 
gestions and offered some shrewd criticisms while 
I have been writing the following pages. 

H. B. 



CONTENTS 

CHAPTER PACK 

PREFACE 9 

I. INTRODUCTION 13 

II. SOUND AND HARMONY 29 

III. MEANING AND SELECTION 70 

IV. DERIVATION AND HISTORY 112 
V. POSITION AND EMPHASIS 136 

VI. MOVEMENT AND RHYTHM 162 

VII. QUALITY AND DESCRIPTION 206 

VIII. EPILOGUE 248 

NOTES 273 

INDEX 275 



SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

I 

INTRODUCTION 

"Eon [JiV o.-V ra eV 777 (fxjjvfj rwv ev 777 
i/jvxfj 7ra6TjfJidra}V crv^jSoAa* /cat ra ypa^ojjieva 
TOJV ev rfj <f>wvfj. 

ARISTOTLE, De Interp. I. i. 

WHAT is style ? It is necessary to remember, first 
of all, that jhere is a difference between a style 
and style. /Every_writer has a style, that is, a 

i ^ ^r"i"^* ir J . ^ i * 

literary manner of his own, and. there are many 
narked contrasts between the styles of our great 
writers, in simplicity, and strength, and melody, 
md many other qualities. But however widely 
these styles differ, all the great writers possess in 
common the attribute of style. How are we to 
define a general quality that manifests itself so 
variously? Lowell has said that it is u like the 
grace of perfectbreeding, which makes itself felt 
?y the skill with which it effaces itself, and 
nasters us at last with a sense of indefinable 
completeness". Every writer who is great simply 



14 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

as a writer has the artist's power and refinement 
and deftness in the manipulation of language. 
Here the qualification must be emphasised : while 
Scott, for example, is assuredly one of the very 
greatest of all writers of fiction, he had not much 
gift of prose style. His novels will always live 
by virtue of great qualities of imagination and 
insight into human life, and of minute observation 
of human character and conduct, but they would 
not live long merely as great achievements in the 
use of the English tongue. Scott is a great writer, 
that is to say, but he is not great expressly as a 
writer of English prose. Our interest is not in his 
own artistic handling of language; it is in the 
people and the events which he describes. But 
when we read a great paragraph of Sir Thomas 
Browne our interest is quite as much in the wa) 
the thing is said as in what is said. 

The whole issue depends largely upon the 
natural distinction which De Quincey expressed 
once for all when he wrote of the difference 
between the literature of knowledge, the function 
of which is to teach^ and the literature of power, 
the function of which is to move. The last, as he 
says, though it may speak ultimately to the 
reason, always speaks "through affections of 
pleasure and sympathy". But there is a further 



INTRODUCTION 15 

distinction to be made here, I think. The master- 
pieces of fiction, for example, belong unmistak- 
bly to the literature of power, for their whole 
appeal is to the imagination and the emotions. 
But the appeal is made by the representation of 
persons and events, and (except in the use of 
dialect, and of language that is specially charac- 
teristic of persons) it does not vitally depend upon 
any particular use of words. Poetry, however, 
and the higher kind of prose, make an imaginative 
and emotional appeal by way of subtleties of 
sound and suggestion and association. Here it is 
not merely a description of supposed facts, not 
merely even a description of emotional facts that 
is sufficient to represent these to the mind 
effectively, as a reporter's account in a newspaper 
of some tragedy may be enough to make us 
realise the pity and the horror of it, where the 
appeal to the emotions really lies in the fact itself, 
however baldly it may be stated. More than that, 
it is not merely such a poignant description of 
the tragedy as we might find in the pages of a 
great novelist, where there is added to the bare 
telation of the fact the insight of an imaginative 
genius. For if the story of that tragedy had been 
written by Shakespeare the whole appeal would 
not have depended on the mere relation of the 



1 6) SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

pitiful fact, and not even on the imaginative 
treatment of it, but also on the very character of 
the language in which it was narrated. The choice 
of each particular word for its sound and sug- 
gestiveness, and the way that the words were 
poised together in the sentence, both in respect 
to emphasis and to melody these elements, at 
least, would have been present in a great passage 
of Shakespeare. What our living poet has said of 
poetry is true of all prose of the very highest kind 
as well as of poetry it is not mere truth or mere 

wisdom : 

"but the rose 
Upon Truth's lips, the light in Wisdom's eyes." 

All the greatest poetry and prose, therefore, has 
to do not only with the things described, and the 
imaginative treatment of these, and the rougft 
solidity of meaning in the words which are used, 
but also with many more elusive attributes of 
language the delicate bloom, the changing lightj 
the faint perfume, the echoing music that belong 
to words. It follows that, as De Quincey remarks, 
"style, or (to speak by the most gene~raT^xp"res i 
sion) ^he management of language, ranks among 
the fine arts, and is able to yield a separate inte& 
lectual ^pTeas"ure""quile "aparfTrom the interest or 
ffie subject treated/' 



INTRODUCTION 17 

A study of style naturally has to do with great 
literature, for it is only there that style, in the 
higher sense of the word, is to be found. But that 
is not to say that a consideration of literary style 
is concerned with all that makes the greatness of 
literature. ?It has been said that style is the great 
a iiserjtic ; the nobler kind of poetry and prose 
lives in the memory of men, and holds its place 
in the immortal literature of the world, largely by 
virtue of this quality of style. But it is worth while 
to consider rather carefully the way in which this 
is true. Style has to do with the form rather than 
with the "substance of literature, and though the 
substance and the form are very intimately allied 
iri every species of art, there is a sense in which 
form is after all the last word. Let us suppose, 
for the sake of argument, that there are two works 
of art which are equally great in conception, but 
that one of them is the more skilfully executed. 
It is certain that it is the one which is more 
perfect in workmanship that will live. That is so 
in literature; every thought that can be expresse_d 
fh^wbrds becomes in a way the special property 
f the writer who utters it in the most adroitly 
managed words. It is rare qualities of intellect 
and imagination that make the essential core of 
great literature, and when these are accompanied 

B 



1 8 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

v* 

by remarkable gifts of expression, both the sub- 
stance and the form are present. These may exist 
apart: there are writers whose powers of thought 
are greater than their powers of expression, and 
their writings may be immortal, like some of the 
great metaphysical classics. But it is not exactly 
as pure" literature that they are immortal. If these 
books belong to literature in the wider sense of 
the word, as being among the great books of the 
world, they belong to the literature of knowledge 
(to use De Quincey's distinction again) rather than 
to the literature of power. They live by sheer 
weight of truth, however clumsy may be the 
language that is used in the expression of it. 

On the other hand there are writers whose 
gift of expression is far in excess of their other 
intellectual powers, and the writings of such 
authors may achieve a minor immortality as 
literature, merely by virtue of the grace and 
beauty of their language. But it is only nobility 
of thought allied with nobility of language that 
makes the absolute greatness of pure literature. 
The former element may be disregarded in the 
following pages, except in so far as it is insepar- 
able from literary form, for our concern is with 
literary style that is to say, with the form and 
not with the substance. This cannot be said too 



INTRODUCTION 19 

plainly. If anyone accuses the present study of 
being concerned with words rather than with 
thoughts, with the literary craftsmanship of the 
great writers rather than with their creative 
imagination, the answer is that it is precisely the 
writer's craft in the use of words that must be 
our preoccupation in any study of style. 

Any consideration of style must therefore be 
specially concerned with belles-lettres^ in the proper 
sense of the phrase, since style is more vital in 
poetry than in prose, and in some particular kinds 
of prose than in other kinds. For prose may be 
only passably good, and yet serve a sufficient 
purpose in the expression of thought, but if verse 
is only passably good, it ceases to be poetry at all 
in any real sense^As Horace said, a Roman 
lawyer of moderate ability might have an excuse 
for existence as a lawyer, though he ~did not 
possess the eloquence of Messala, nor the legal 
learning of Casselius Aulus, but a middling poet 
that (as it might be maliciously rendered) 
neither gods nor men nor even publishers could 

stand ! 

mediocribus esse poetis 
Non homines, non dt t non concessere columnae.(i) 

The reason is plain. (When we read the work of 
a philosopher, for example, we are much more 



20 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

concerned with the quality of the thought than 
with the quality of the language, though if the 
philosopher is Berkeley we recognise the added 
grace of style. But when we read a poem of 
Shelley's (however much of thought and truth 
there may be in it), the form becomes vastly more 
important, because it is much more intimately 
one with the substanceA When Butler writes of 



conscience, "A direction of the Author of Nature, 
given to creatures capable of looking upon it as 
such, is plainly a command from Him; and a 
command from Him necessarily includes in it, 
at least, an implicit promise in case of obedience, 
or threatening in case of disobedience", we feel 
that he is building a solid structure of words that 
conveys his meaning well enough. But when 
Wordsworth writes : _ < 

-nf TO nury 

"Stern Daughter of the Voice of God ! 
O Duty ! if that name thou love 
Who art a light to guide, a rod 
To check the erring and reprove", 

we feel that, while he is saying much the same 
thing as Butler, he is not only saying it within 
the pattern of a metrical form, and saying it much 
more imaginatively, but he is also saying it in, 
words which are more choice, harmonious, and 



INTRODUCTION 21 

memorable than Butler's. We feel also that the 
imaginative quality of the lines is inseparable from 
the poet's words, each with its special sound, and 
use, and associations, and equally inseparable 
from the way in which these different words are 
grouped together. 

It is largely the difference between use and 
beauty, in regard to the craftsmanship which is 
involved in the creation of things which are useful 
and things which are beautiful. If the Athenians 
of old built a harbour wall, the main thing was 
that the blocks of stone should be roughly 
squared; if they carved a statue of Pallas Athene 
it became a question of the nobler kind of crafts- 
manship that we call art, where the imaginative 
appeal of the finished work depends not only on 
the artistic design, but on the artistic execution 
a minute precision and a subtle delicacy in the 
workmanship which are affected by every blow 
of the hammer and every stroke of the chisel. 
C As the element of art is more essential to poetry 
than to prose, generally, so it is more essential to 
the kind of prose that approaches poetry in its 
spirit and intention than to other sorts of prose. 
It is not that the finest prose resembles poetry in 
the metrical or rhythmical effects which properly 
belong to poetry, for the whole structure of prose 



22 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

is obviously different from that of poetry, but 
that as there is any approach to the more ideal 
significance of poetry the form becomes more 
essential the subtleties of meaning and the 
harmonies of sound are more vitaly 

It would be tolerable enough if we read in a 
guide-book to Venice: "The first sight of the 
Rialto from a gondola as you pass down the Grand 
Canal is very striking. The bridge is a single arch, 
spanning the Canal. It gives an impression of 
mingled strength and grace. On the left is the 
Camerlenghi Palace. As your boat proceeds the 
silence is only broken by the splash of the oar 
and the cry of the gondolier. Farther down the 
Canal the first view of the Doge's Palace, and, on 
the other side of the water, of the Church of 
Santa Maria della Salute, is also very impres- 
sive." But we pass into another world altogether 
when we read Ruskin's jvords : "When first, at 
the extremity of the bright vista, the shadowy 
Rialto threw its colossal curve slowly forth from 
behind the palace, of the Camerlenghi; that 
strange curve, so delicate, so adamantine, strong 
as a mountain torrent, graceful as a bow just 
bent; when first, before its moonlike circum^ 
ference was all risen, the gondolier's cry, 'AhJ 
Stall', struck sharp upon the ear, and the prow\ 



INTRODUCTION 23 

turned aside under the mighty cornices that half 
met over the narrow canal, where the plash of 
water followed close and loud, ringing along the 
marble by the boat's side; and when at last that 
boat darted forth upon the breadth of silver sea, 
across which the front of the Ducal Palace, flushed 
with its sanguine veins, looks to the snowy palace 
of Our Lady of Salvation, it was no marvel that 
the mind should be so deeply entranced by the 
visionary charm of a scene so beautiful and so 
strange/' ([Here the difference is plainly a dif- 
ference in imaginative quality, first of all, but 
that difference depends for its expression upon the 
more delicate choice of words, and the more 
skilful way that the words are marshalled together. 
The words are nobler because they are of finer 
sound or of subtler significance, and these attri- 
butes finally depend upon their history and their 
u&e in" the past; there is also the way that they 
aFe~pIaced in the~sentence, for it is not a mere, 
jumble of fine language, but a deliberate and 
delicate arrangement. 

We may say, then, that there are at least these 
principal factors of which serious account must 
be taken in any consideration of style. Every 
word has a sound; a meaning; a relation to the 
other words in the sentence; an etymological 



24 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

history; and also literary associations that have 
gathered around it in the passage of the centuries. 
All these are connected, and often connected in 
the most subtle and sensitive way. There is some- 
times a primary relation between the sound and 
the meaning of the word. The more delicate 
shades of meaning often depend upon the deriva- 
tion and history of the word, and these again 
account in a great measure for its sound. OThe 
sound of the word is always conditioned by the 
sound of the other words with which it is associ- 
ated in a sentence.) Similarly the meaning of the 
word is influenced to some extent by the other 
words with which it finds itself in company for 
the moment. Both the sound and the meaning 
are affected byTne IncTvenrent t)f the words x . And 
the aptness of a word for a particular use is also 
influenced by the way in which it has been used 
in the great literature of the past. 

All these facts react upon each other. A word 
may be a beautiful sound in itself, but a word 
never stands alone, except in a dictionary, and 
the beauty of the sound of any word is therefore 
affected by the sound of the words associated 
with it. Heaven is a beautiful word, and the 
starry heaven is a musical phrase, but no one 
would regard Nigger Heaven (which is the title 



INTRODUCTION 25 

of an American play) as a phrase of attractive 
sound. The meaning of a word, again, is a rela- 
tively fixed element, but even the meaning of a 
word is determined to some considerable extent 
by the words that are used along with it. Imperial 
conveys a general sense of "what is connected 
with empire", but the meaning varies widely 
according as you say that a statesman has "em- 
barked on an imperial policy ", or that his wife 
"carries herself with an imperial air", or that either 
of them has "drunk an imperial pint of wine!" 

Again, the position of a word in a sentence in 
relation to other words has a real bearing upon 
its effectiveness both in sound and sense, because 
that position and relation largely regulate the 
stress that it bears. A sentence like, "They went 
out from our fellowship but they were not of our 
spirit", gives the sense of the Apostle's words, 
but there is nothing like the stress there (either 
in pronunciation or in meaning) upon the words 
from and of that there is in the Authorised Version : 
"They went out from us but they were not 0/us." 
You cannot stress the words so much, and there 
is no need to do so, when they are followed by 
descriptive nouns, as when they come almost at 
the end of a clause and are only followed by a 
pronoun. 



26 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

Once again, the structure and the history of a 
word affect both its sound and its significance. 
When we read that at the Crucifixion "the veil 
of the temple was rent in twain*', the word rent 
represents by its very consonants the tearing 
sound. The same effect is produced in the original 
Greek by other imitative consonants (eV^ic^, 
a form of the word that we have in English as 
schism) much as we can reproduce the sound of 
rending by saying split. There are many words in 
every language that are similarly mimetic. Apart 
from imitative sound altogether there are also 
hosts of words that have developed interesting 
contrasts of sound and sense in the course of 
their history. Thus there are many pairs of words 
in English that have a Latin origin, but in one 
example the word has come to us by direct 
borrowing from the Latin, and in the other the 
word has reached us through the older form of 
French. It is curious to note the difference that 
has developed in the meaning, accompanied by a 
change in the sound. Thus prosecute and pursue 
have the same ultimate source, but prosecute has 
come to us almost unchanged from the Latin 
prosequor, prosecutus, while pursue has reached us 
by way of the Old French porsuir, though it goes 
back to the same Latin word. So vindictive a 



INTRODUCTION 27 

vengeful are both from the Latin in the last resort, 
but vindictive has come to us direct as from 
vindicare, and vengeful derives from the French 
venger, though that in turn has come from 
vindicare. Now consider the difference between a 
vindictive prosecution and a vengeful pursuit. Obvi- 
ously the first phrase is the more rigid, technical, 
and prosaic, the second is the more vivid, 
romantic, and poetical. But the first phrase con- 
sists of seven syllables and twenty-one letters, of 
which twelve are consonants, while the second 
phrase consists of four syllables and fifteen letters, 
of which nine are consonants. It is plain that there 
is a connection between the rigidity of the first 
phrase and its polysyllabic and consonantal 
character, and that the shortening and softening 
of this in the second phrase has to do with its 
more musical sound, and with its more poetic 
suggestiveness. Thus it is generally true that 
words directly from the Latin have a more rigid 
and stately character, depending largely on the 
fact that many of them are sonorous polysyllables, 
and that words which have come to us from the 
Latin through the older form of French have a 
more romantic character, largely because they 
have fewer syllables, fewer consonants, and more 
mingled vowels. 



28 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

Then anyone who is familiar with great 
literature (and no one else is likely to bother 
about style) will always hear literary undertones 
in words. Probably no well-read person could see 
or use the word dread> or any of its adjectives, 
without some faint echo in his mind (to remember 
Milton only) of lines like: 

"Return, Alpheus; the dread voice is past 
That shrunk thy streams", 

and: 

"All night the dreadless angel, unpursued 
Through Heaven's wide champaign held his way", 

and: 

"the dreaded name 
Of Demogorgon", 

and: 

"the gate 
With dreadful faces thronged and fiery arms." 



II 

SOUND AND HARMONY 

IT will be worth while to consider more closely 
some of the factors that have been already 
mentioned. Let us think, first, of the mere sound 
of words. The Mad Hatter asked Alice, "Why 
is a raven like a writing-desk?" He did not give 
the answer, and probably there was meant to be 
none, but there is really a point of connexion by 
way of sound. Almost every word that means 
"to write" has the original sense of scratching 
(y/>a<a>, scribo, ecrire, schreiberi), and almost every 
word that means "raven" derives from the croak 
of the bird (/cd/aaf, corvus, corbeau, Rabe\ and in 
both series of words the scraping sound and the 
hoarse sound are represented by R (often in 
company with a guttural G, K, or Ch). The Mad 
Hatter's riddle might therefore be answered, 
"Because there is an R in both raven and writing- 
desk, to represent a rough sound the scratch 
of a pen, and the croak of the bird." 

The very letters of the alphabet, that is to say, 
preponderate in a word according to its original 
meaning, and if that meaning has not changed 



30 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

too much in the course of time the sound is still, 
as Pope said, "an echo of the sense'*. Plato pointed 
out in the Cratylus that the long vowels a and 17 
suit "the expression of largeness and length"; 
that p suggests "motion and violence" ; A "slipping 
and smoothness"; the sibilants or, f, and ^ notions 
of "seething, shivering, and windy sounds"; 
while the dentals 8 and r express "binding and 
rest". Many of the words which he gives as 
examples are naturally rendered by English 
words in which the same sounds predominate, 
and it would not be difficult to string together 
many words of the same sort, for example, for, 
l^rge, gmzt; run, race, roll, rage, rend; /aunch, 
/apse, /evel, s/ide, s/eek; Dimmer, jizzle, jhake, 
jhiver, shudder, jigh, jough; we</, wel*/, bon</, 
fas/, fe//er, hal/, res/. Our own English philoso- 
pher Bacon acutely remarked in his Natural 
History (c. ii. 200): "There is found a similitude 
between the sound that is made by inanimate 
bodies or by animate bodies that have no voice 
articulate, and divers letters of articulate voices; 
and commonly men have given such names to 
those sounds as do allude unto the articulate 
letters; as trembling of water hath resemblance 
with the letter L\ quenching of hot metals with 
the letter Z; snarling of dogs with the letter R\ 



SOUND AND HARMONY 31 

the noise of screech-owls with the letter $^; 
voice of cats with the diphthong Eu\ voice of 
cuckoos with the diphthong Ou\ sounds of strings 
with the letter Ng." It is easy enough to illustrate 
Bacon's thesis. Think of /apping water on the 
shore, sizzling iron in a smithy, barking dogs, 
bricking owls, mewing cats, and twanging strings, 
to say nothing of the cuck00 though it must be 
confessed that when all these are brought together 
it makes a very bedlam of sound ! 

Take the letter R, which Bacon associated 
with "snarling of dogs'*. Persius similarly called it 
tittera canina. It is found prominently not only in 
words that mean to bark or to snarl, but in words 
that convey a sense of rending or breaking, like 
the Greek pat'eo, pa/coco, p^yvu/Lu, and in many 
Latin words which have a similar sense, like 
deripio, ruina, rumpo. So in a large number of 
English words that suggest harsh sounds, such 
as break, crash, creak, grate, groan, harsh, hoarse, 
rent, rasp, rattle, rip, roar, row, rumble. 

The sound prevails in descriptions of harsh 
noises generally, as in Horace's line: Ut gratas 
inter mensas symphonia discor$.(2) So Shakespeare 
writes, in Macbeth: 

"The raven himself is hoarse 
That croaks the fatal enterance of Duncan." 



32 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

And Dryden, in Alexander's Feast: "And rouse 
him like a rattling peal of thunder." 

The sound of a trumpet naturally demands the 
letter R. Lucretius writes: Et revorat raucum 
retro cito barbara bombum^ an untranslatable 
line and our own poets use the letter in the same 
way, as when Milton tells of Satan that: 

"At the warlike sound 
Of trumpets loud and clarions, he upreared 
His mighty standard", 

and so in many lines like Shakespeare's, "With 
harsh resounding trumpets' dreadful bray", and 
Dryden's, "The trumpet's loud clangour excites 
us to arms", and Keats', "The silver snarling 
trumpets 'gan to chide", and Tennyson's, "The 
shattering trumpet shrilleth high". And so 
generally of anything that suggests the sounds of 
war, as when Marvell apostrophises Cromwell: 



'Thee, many ages hence, in martial verse, 

Shall the English soldier, ere he charge, rehearse.' 



So also of grating sounds like the grinding of 
hinges when a heavy door is opened or closed. 
Virgil wrote : 

dirae ferro et corpagibus artis 
Claudentur Belli portaefa) 



SOUND AND HARMONY 33 

and again : 

Turn demum horrisono stridentes cardine sacrae 
Panduntur portae.($) 

The last passage was clearly in the mind of 
Milton when he wrote of the gates of hell : 

"Open fly, 

With impetuous recoil and jarring sound, 
The infernal doors, and on their hinges grate 
Harsh thunder." 

Virgil again describes Pyrrhus breaking through 
the door of Priam's palace : 

Ipse inter primos correpta dura bipenni 
Limma perrumpit.(6) 

And so generally of anything that is accompanied 
by a rending or roaring noise. Milton describes 
the effect of an eruption, and the hill that is : 

"Torn from Pelorus, or the shattered side 
Of thundering Etna", 

and represents the sound of the roaring sea: 

"that parts 
Calabria from the hoarse Trinacrian shore." 



If you have any doubt as to the effect of those 
harsh R's, substitute: 

"that divides 

Ausonia from the dim Sicilian coast", 

c 



34 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

and observe the difference when they have gone. 
Similarly Keats writes of: 

"the solid roar 
Of thunderous waterfalls and torrents hoarse", 

and describes a similar scene as: 

"hoarse with loud tormented streams 
And all the everlasting cataracts 
And all the headlong torrents far and near." 

The letter S derives both shape and sound 
from the snake; the letter therefore prevails in 
the names of the reptile, like ofas, anguis, serpens, 
and in words like avpiw, a^a/oayc'o^ai, susurro, 
sibilo, and our English words, sigh, sizzle, splash, 
suck, swish, whizz, that suggest a hissing or 
whistling sound, and (to a smaller extent) in 
words like the Latin sinuosus, and our words, 
shuffle, skulk, squint, which suggest a sly or 
twisting movement. The sibilants, therefore, 
naturally prevail in any description of a serpent. 
Virgil describes a wounded snake : 

Saucius at serpens sinuosa vo/umina versat, ** 
Arrectisque horret squamis, et sibilat ore,(j) 

and Pope writes of "a needless alexandrine" that 
"like a wounded .make dr%j its slow length 
along". Here, of course, it is the long vowels as 



SOUND AND HARMONY 35 

well as the sibilants that matter, because they 

convey the sense of the slow crawl of the reptile. 

Milton gives us a horrid list of serpent's names: 

"Scorpion and a/p and amphijbaena dire 
Cerartej horned, hydruj, and ellopj drear, 
And dipm", 

with a sibilant or two in every name; whenever 
he mentions the serpent, or the Tempter in the 
serpent's form, it is "the serpent, jubtlejt beajt of 
all the field", or "the spirited jly .make", or "the 
jerpent jly, injinuating" ; when he describes how 
the demons were changed into serpents he tells 
us that there was "a dismal universal hitt, the 
jound of public jcorn"; and when he wants to 
suggest a snake's movement he writes: "Theje 
their long dimension drew, Streaking the ground 
with jinuous trace." 

The letter naturally prevails also in descriptions 
of a storm, when you are meant to hear the 
whistling winds and splashing waves, as where 
Virgil likens the onfall of the Greeks to a sudden 
tempest, when: 

stridunt si/vae, saevitque tridenti 
Spumeus atque im$ Nereus ciet aequora fundo.(%) 

So generally of any hissing or whistling sound, as 



36 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

when Wordsworth describes the whistling flight 
of an arrow : 



"Thoujandr of yean before the jilent air 
Waj pierced by whizzing jhaft of hunter keen", 

and the hissing slide of skates : 

"All shod with jteel 

We hi,rjed along the polished ice in gamej 
Confederate." 

And in any description of flight where the rustle 
of pinions is suggested, as when Milton writes: 
"Brujhed with the hiss of rmtling wingj", and 
describes the flight of the fiend over chaos: 

"At lart his jail-broad vam 
He jpreadj for flight, and, in the purging jmoke 
Uplifted, jpurm the ground." 

There appear to be more sibilants in English 
than in any other language. The proportion has 
been increased in modern times by an inflexional 
change of which Addison complained the sub- 
stitution of s for eth in the last syllable of 
the third person of the present tense of the verb. 
We say "seeks", and "speaks", where earlier 
English said "seeketh" and "speaketh". There 
can be no doubt that this ha* considerably added 
to the proportion of sibilants : in the first Psalm, 



SOUND AND HARMONY 37 

for example, we have "walketh" . . . "standeth" 
. . . "sitteth" . . . "bringeth" . . . "doeth" . . . 
"driveth" . . . "knoweth". When the change is 
made to "walks, stands", and so on, there are 
seven more sibilant endings in the six verses. 
The shortening of the words has some effect upon 
the general sound of the sentences, but apart 
from this I cannot believe that the changed 
ending brings about any loss of euphony. I am 
sure that it does not in the language generally. 

Tennyson thought that he disliked the sibi- 
lants, and said that he took special care in the 
revision of his verse to "kick out the geese". In 
spite of this, I think that there is probably as 
much alliteration upon S in his writings as in 
most of the English poets. One has only to turn 
over the pages of In Memoriam to find many 
stanzas like this: 

"Eternal proves* moving on 

From jtate to jtate the spirit walla; 
And there are but the shattered jtalk*, 
Or ruined chryjali; of one", 

or this: 

"What jtayy thee from the clouded noom, 
Thy jweetnesj from itf proper pkure ? 
Can trouble live with April dayr, 
Or jadnesf in the summer moonj?" 



38 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

There are many other passages in Tennyson's 
poems where sibilants are numerous, and there 
is usually a very good reason for their prominence, 
as, for example: 

"The jilent jnow powew'd the earth, 
And calmly fell our Chmtmaj Eve", 

where the S's, in combination with the L's, M's, 
and N's, suggest to the ear the falling stillness of 
the snowy night; and: 

"Short swallow- flights of song that dip 
Their wings in tearr and jkim away", 

where the S's, associated with stopped letters 
like D, P, and T, along with the prevalent mono- 
syllables, indicate rapidity and brevity of action 
the quick, short flights of the bird. 

I suggest that the explanation of Tennyson's 
imagined distaste for sibilants, and the trouble he 
took to expel them, is simply that his style ran 
naturally to alliteration, and that he was alert to 
the danger of alliterative excess. He once said, in 
reply to the criticism that his verse was stupidly 
alliterative, "Why, when I spout my lines first, 
they come out so alliteratively that I have some- 
times no end of trouble to get rid of the allitera- 
tion." He felt instinctively that he must be on 
his guard against alliteration, and especially 



SOUND AND HARMONY 39 

against an excess of sibilants, which is perhaps 
one of the most obvious forms of alliterative 
excess, and took trouble to hunt out the S's, but 
did not succeed in reducing them below the pro- 
portion in which they are found in other poets. 
Milton, to whom Tennyson owed so much as an 
exemplar of poetic style, certainly had no objection 
to alliteration of this particular kind. It is rather 
characteristic of him, as many passages from 
Paradise Lost are sufficient to show. For example : 



"For who can yet believe, though after 
That all theje puittant legioru, whoje e#ile 
Hath emptied Heaven, jhall fail to re-attend, 
elf-raued, and reporter their native jeat ? 
For me, be witnew all the host of Heaven, 
If counsel ; different, or danger jhunned 
By me, have lost our hopej." 

Here is another example from Comus: 

"At last a soft and jolemn breathing round 
Roje like a stream of rich distilled perfumej 
And stole upon the air, that even Silence 
Wa* took ere jhe wa* ware . ." 



And another from Lycidas : 

"Whom universal nature did lament, 
When, by the rout that made the hideouj roar, 
Hi* gory vuage down the stream waj jent, 
Down the jwift Hebruj to the Lejbian jhore." 



40 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

The lines which follow are almost as abundant 
in sibilants as these. But indeed a single line like 
that from the Ode on the Morning of Christ's 
Nativity: "The jable-Jtoled sorcerers bear hi* 
worjhipt ark", is enough to show that Milton had 
no horror of sibilants. 

When S is associated with L it often suggests 
something slow and sleepy. Our word "sleep" 
derives from a root that means "relaxed", and 
we have many words like "slack", "slide", 
"slink", "slip", "slouch", "slow". Consequently 
the blended sound is often used to indicate some 
movement that is slow and almost silent. Thus 
Tennyson describes the quiet flow of the tides 
which still the ripple of the river: 

"There twiVe a day the Severn fi//r; 
The ja/t jea-water passes by, 
And hujhej ha/f the babb/ing Wye, 
And makej a si/ence in the hi/A", 

and the same poet writes in Mariana: 

"About a jtone-cajt from the wa// 
A s/uice with b/acken'd watery j/ept." 

If, however, a dental immediately follows the 
sibilant, and the sound is prolonged by a liquid 
following that, there is a feeling of stricture in 



SOUND AND HARMONY 41 

the sound. So in Greek there are words like 

or/)ayyaAta>, arpcjSAocu, orr/oe^co, which all have 
a sense of straining or strangling, and in 
Latin there are words like strangulo, stringo, which 
have a similar meaning. In English we have many 
words such as strait, strain, stretch, strife, struggle. 
In German again there are many words like 
straff, strduben, strecken, streiten, which all convey 
a sense of stretching or striving. 

It is not an accident that such words as these 
all imply j/rain, for the S T R is a j/rangled, 
5/rident sort of sound which suggests that. It has 
been pointed out that as a matter of psychological 
fact the muscular action involved in pronouncing 
a word like struggle calls up in the mind an 
instinctive sense of physical effort. Tennyson was 
once criticised for rhyming land with land in the 
opening lines of The Lotus Eaters \ * 



" 'Courage !' he said, and pointed toward the land, 
'This mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon !' 
In the afternoon they came unto a land 
In which it seemed always afternoon." 

The rhyme is not a rhyme at all, of course, and 
superficially the criticism is justified. But Tenny- 
son said in answer to it, "The strand was, I think, 
my first reading, but the no-rhyme of land was 



42 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

lazier." So it is: it almost suggests that the 
narrator is too tired to think of another word, 
and the lazy recurrence of the same word suits 
the atmosphere of weariness that marks the poem 
throughout. But that is not the whole issue. 
Strand, though it has itself no connotation of 
effort, begins with the sound that (as we have 
seen) characterises many of the words that do 
suggest strain, and there is an element of vocal 
strain in the utterance of it. It was the sound of 
the word strand which led the poet to avoid it, 
and to substitute a word that was "lazier". 

The letter H also characterises many words 
which denote effort, like hale, haste, haul, heave, 
heavy, hew, hie, hoist, hop, huge, hurl, hurry. The 
initial aspirate almost suggests the gasp that goes 
with any strong exertion. Pope's line, "Up the 
Mgh h\\\ he leaves the /zuge round stone", verges 
on the comic, but it will serve as an extreme 
illustration of the point. There are many other 
examples, like Spenser's: "//is ^eavie ^and he, 
heaved up on ^ye", and Dryden's: 

"When Nature underneath a heap 

Of jarring atoms lay 
And could not Aeave Aer Aead . . ." 

It is noticeable how the letter L prevails in any 



SOUND AND HARMONY 43 

description of a long line, especially a streaming 
ray of light. Milton writes, in Comus: 



"visit us 



With thy /ong /eve//ed ru/e of streaming /ight 
And thou shalt be our star of Arcady." 

Matthew Arnold tells us in The Scholar Gipsy 
how the wanderer: 



"Turn'd once to watch, while thick the snow flakes fall, 
The /ine of festa/ /ight in Christ-Church ha//." 

Tennyson has a similar phrase in In Memoriam : 

"My blessing /ike a /ine of /ight 

In on the waters, day and night 
And like a beacon guards thee home." 

Shelley writes of the sun's light upon the sea : 



'On the /eve/ quivering /ine 
Of the waters crysta//ine." 



The smooth and prolonged sound of the letter 
naturally suits any description of what is long and 
level. Hence it is appropriate in the representation 
of a line of light, or of a long glance into the past, 
as in Gray's line: "Nor cast one /onging, /inger- 
ing /ook behind", or indeed of any scene which 



44 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

suggests length of distance, as when Shelley 
writes : 

"round the decay 

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, 
The /one and /eve/ sands stretch far away." 

In some of these matters the phonetic classi- 
fication of the consonants is alone enough to put 
us in the track. For example, G is a guttural 
Latin, guttur\ Greek, yapyapca>v\ French, gor^e; 
German, Gurgel: "the throat". So yapyapifa in 
Greek, ^ur^eln in German, and ^lou^lou in 
French mean to gurgle or gargle. The sound of 
gurgling is made by swirling water; gurges in 
Latin means a whirlpool, and Fapydfaa was the 
name of a gurgling fountain in Bceotia. It will be 
noticed that R is nearly always found along with 
G in these words, because it conveys in that 
association a sense of continual action, due to the 
sustained trilling of the sound, and also that such 
words are often used along with others in which 
labials are prominent, as when Wordsworth 
writes : 



And from the turf a fountain broke 
And ^ur^led at our/eet." 



The labial letters, or sounds made with the 
lips (labia), since they are amongst the first sounds 



SOUND AND HARMONY 45 

produced by an infant, predominate in words that 
describe a babyish and unintelligible speech, like 
the Greek )3aj8a, "a chatterer", and j8apj8a/>os, 
"a barbarian", i.e. one who was not a Greek, and 
talked in what sounded to a Greek like a childish 
and meaningless way. So in our babble, gabble, 
jabber, gibber, gibberish. And since the sounds 
made by the lips resemble the sounds made by 
water when it is agitated, there are also many 
words like the Latin bulk, and bulla, and our 
boil, bubble, drip, drop, lap, plop, ripple. It will be 
noticed that in most of these words the B's and 
P's are associated with L's, and a moment's 
thought will show that the function of the liquid 
is to prolong the sound of the labial. 

Consequently these sounds prevail in descrip- 
tions of foolish speech. The translators of 1 6 1 1 
render the words of the philosophers of Athens, 
"What will this babbler say?" and Prospero says 
to Caliban: 

"Thou didst not, savage, 

Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like 
A thing most brutish." 

The sounds prevail likewise in descriptions of 
bubbling liquids, like that of the witches' boiling 
cauldron in Macbeth: 



46 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 



4 Dou/e, dou/e, toi/ and trou/e, 
Fire burn and cau/dron bubble" 



and in descriptions of running water, like 
Tennyson's brook: 



"I chatter over stony ways 

In /itt/e shares and tre^/es, 
I bubble into eddying ays 
I babble on the pebbles" 

More than a quarter of the effective consonants 
in this quatrain are B's, P's, and L's. This is 
probably the best example in English poetry, 
but there are many others, as when the same poet 
makes Sir Bedivere say: 

"I heard the ripple washing in the reeds, 
And the wi/d water /sipping on the crag", 

and when Keats writes of: 

"a timorous brook 

That /ingering a/ong a pebbled coast 
Doth fear to meet the sea." 

The sound and shape of M are alike derived 
from the sea ; the murmur of the waves gives the 
sound, and an undulating line (as in a child's 
drawing of waves) is the original shape. Conse- 
quently it is often found in words like the Latin 
mare (from which our mere is derived, having 



SOUND AND HARMONY 47 

degenerated into the name of a lake), murmur 
(which we have adopted unchanged into English), 
and our own native words hum, moan, mumble^ 
mutter all words that suggest a low sound like 
the moan of the sea, or the hum of insects, or the 
murmur of doves. 

So Virgil compares the sound of the ghosts 
fluttering around Lethe with the humming of 
bees: strepit omnis murmure campus^) and Shelley 
writes of: 

"The melodies of birds and bees, 
The murmuring of summer seas", 

and Keats of: 

"The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves", 

and Matthew Arnold of: 

"All the live murmur of a summer's day", 

and Tennyson of: 

"The moan of doves in immemorial elms 
And murmuring of innumerable bees." 

It will be seen that in many descriptions of 
the sea, S is as prominent as M, obviously because 
the one letter suggests the hissing splash, and the 
other suggests the deep murmur, which both 
belong to the sound of the waves. A friend of 



48 SOME; SECRETS OF STYLE 

mine used to maintain that the finest line in the 
Mneid was : Spumea semifero sub pectore murmurat 
unda.(io) The effect is due to the M's and S's, 
along with the labials like B, F, P, and the deep 
vowels, all together suggesting a splashing mur- 
mur as the monster swims. Edgar Allan Poe 
achieves much the same effect by the same means : 

"No more no more no more 

(*S"uch language holds the solemn sea. 

To the sands upon the jhore)", 

and Tennyson: 



"The moanings of the homeless jea, 
The jound of streams that jwift or flow 
Draw down Ionian hills." 

All the following lines from The Lotus Eaters 
end with M's or N's: 

"All round the coast the languid air did swoon 
Breathing like one that hath a weary dream. 
Full-faced above the valley stood the moon ; 
And like a downward smoke, the slender stream 
Along the cliff to fall and pause and fall did seem." 

The effect of these final consonants is that each 
line fades away gradually into silence, because 
the M's and N's have a continued sound. There 
are also the long vowels to be remembered, but 



SOUND AND HARMONY 49 

apart from these, see how the languid close of 
the lines alters if you substitute "did faint" for 
"did swoon"; "a weary mood" for "a weary 
dream", "a star" for "the moon"; and "the 
slender brook" for "the slender stream". This is 
simply because T, D, R, K, are much more 
definite as final sounds, and do not let the end of 
the line continue to reverberate and gradually die 
v away, like the last, low, humming note of a distant 
bell. 

The M's, N's, and S's prevail naturally in any 
description that is meant to suggest the noise of 
waters. So Tennyson writes again: 

"RolPd to starboard, roll'd to larboard, when the mrge 

was jeething free, 

Where the wallowiwg monster spouted his foam-fouwtaiwj 
in the jea." 

Milton has the beautiful line: "And liquid lapje 
of murmuring streams", and Keats has another 
almost as delightful: "U#hau#ted by the mur- 
murous noise of wave/', while Coleridge writes of: 

"the deep murmured chanw 
That is lijped evermore at his slu/wberlew foutai." 

The letters M and N are closely associated in 
sound, of course, and therefore in such uses as 



50 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

these. The presence of B's, P's, F's, and V's will 
often be noticed, along with the M's, N's, and 
S's, as in Wordsworth's lines: 

"Where rkmlets dance their wayward round, 
And beauty born of murmuring sound 
tfhall pass into her /are." 

The letters D and T naturally express thudding 
and clattering sounds, and are generally helped 
by M's and N's, as when Virgil describes the 
gallop of j^Eneas' horsemen: Quadrupedumque 
putrem cursu quatit ungula campum.(i i) Tennyson 
has a line also describing the gallop of horses, 
which might almost be a translation of the last: 
"An*/ cla//eri#g fli/s ba//erV wi/h cla#gi//g 
hoofs". So Tennyson writes again of the iron 
that is: 

"heated hot with burning fears, 
And dipt in baths of hissing tears, 
And bartered wi/h /he shocks of doom." 

In descriptions of slighter sounds of a similar 
kind, where it is a pattering rather than a clatter- 
ingy the dentals are almost as numerous, but more 
modulated by N's and S's, as when Keats manages 
to convey the pattering hiss of a shower : 



"/he *he sounds agaw 
We/ noiseless a* a passing noontide rain. 



SOUND AND HARMONY 51 

D is a duller dental than T, and it is therefore 
prominent in descriptions of the more muffled 
noises, and of situations in which they are appro- 
priate. Think of Poe's lines : 

"Come ! let the burial rite be rea*/ the funeral song be 

sung! 
An anthem for the queenliest de&d that ever died so 

young 
A </irge for her the doubly dea*/, in that she died so 

young", 

and observe how the repeated D's sound like the 
thudding of clods upon the coffin. (The last 
words were written without thinking of the sound 
of the letters, but there it is again "the thu^/ing 
ofcWs"). 

Then apart from mimetic sounds there can be 
no doubt that some words are specially beautiful 
in themselves, as mere complexes of sound. There 
was an interesting correspondence some years 
ago in a literary journal on beautiful words, and 
a rather striking agreement appeared among the 
various contributors as to the inherent beauty of 
some English words. Azure, bereave, desolate, 
forlorn, haven, holy, melodious, peace, splendour, 
welcome, and wilderness, were amongst the words 
selected. Surely everyone would feel that these 
are beautiful words in the very sound of them. 



52 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

Indeed, the poets' choice of them is a sufficient 
warranty of it. A small anthology might be made 
out of passages in which these particular words 
prominently occur, as, for example: 

"Until 

Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow 
Her clarion o'er the dreaming earth", 

and: 



'Of one deep bliss thine ear hath been bereft, 
Then cleave, O cleave, to that which still is left!' 



and: 

"The Desolater desolate! 

The Victor overthrown ! 
The arbiter of others' fate 
A suppliant for his own !" 

and: 

"Forlorn! the very word is like a bell 
To toll me back from thee to my sole self, 



and: 



**The stately ships go on 

To their haven under the hill j 
But O for the touch of r. vanished hand, 
And the sound of a voice that is still !" 



SOUND AND HARMONY 53 

and: 

"A savage place ! as holy and enchanted 
As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted 
By woman wailing for her demon-lover", 

and: 



and 



The blue regions of the air 

Where the melodious winds have birth", 



past 
To where beyond these voices there is peace" ', 

and: 

"Another Athens shall arise, 

And to remoter time 
Bequeath, like sunset to the skies, 
The splendour of its prime", 

and: 

"No nightingale did ever chaunt 
More welcome notes to weary bands 
Of travellers in some shady haunt, 
Among Arabian sands", 

and: 

"Encinctured with a twine of leaves, 
That leafy twine his only dress ! 
A lovely boy was plucking fruits, 
By moonlight in a wilderness." 

The reason for the beauty of words like these 



54 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

does not altogether escape a careful analysis. It 
is largely due to the way in which the vowels in 
these words accommodate themselves to the con- 
sonants. The different classes of consonants may 
be placed in a kind of rough natural scale accord- 
ing to the order in which they are produced in 
the mouth ranging, that is, from the gutturals, 
produced deep down in the throat, to the labials, 
produced at the lips. To change suddenly from 
one consonant to another widely removed from 
it in the natural scale requires an effort and pro- 
duces an ugly sound, and in the words under 
consideration the effort and ugliness are minimised 
by having long vowels between such widely 
differing consonants, the length of the vowels 
being proportionate to the distance apart of the 
consonants in the natural scale. The relation of 
the vowels to each other within a word is also a 
factor which operates in more ways than one. 
For the vowels go down a natural scale in the 
order I, E, A, O, U. When we utter the words 
"p/t, pety paty pot, p#t", we naturally say: 



pit, 



pot, 
pwt 



" 



SOUND AND HARMONY 55 

In any beautiful word the vowels will be found 
to combine or contrast with each other with some 
reference to this scale. 

It is curious, by the way, that there seems to 
be a natural association between this descending 
scale and the sense of time in our grammatical 
construction. Many of the strong verbs in 
English form their tenses according to this scale: 
begin, began, begun; cleave, clave, cloven; drink, 
drank, drunk; fly, flew, flown; ring, rang, rung; 
sing, sang, sung; sling, slang, slung; speak, 
spake, spoke. That is to say, there is a high vowel 
for the present, a lower vowel for the past, and a 
still lower vowel for the finished past. Now this 
scale seems to assert itself instinctively in phrases 
which convey a sense of sad finality. So in Scott's 
lines: 



" 



He turn'd his charger as he spake 

Upon the river shore, 
He gave the bridle-reins a shake, 

Said 'Adieu for evermore 
My love ! 

And adieu for 



It is perhaps worth while to notice that "My 
love!" breaks, and therefore emphasises, the 
repetition of "for evermore", and also that the 
descending series is kept more faithfully in pro- 



56 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

nunciation than appears from the spelling in the 
repeated phrase, since the second E, being unac- 
cented, is slurred into a lower vowel sound. It is 
surprising to note how frequently this falling 
inflection occurs in a line which expresses some 
solemn finality. Here is another instance, from 
Francis Thompson: 

"Nothing begins and nothing ends, 

That is not paid with moan ; 
For we are born in other's pain, 
And perish in our 



Contrast with these examples the rising inflec- 
tion in Browning's lines, where again there is the 
thought of perpetuity, but this time in a hopeful 
sense: 

"So, the year's done with, 

(Love me for ever!) 
All March begun with, 

April's endeavour; 
May-wreaths that bound me 

June needs must sever; 
Now snows fall round me, 

Quencing June's fever 

(Love me for 



Here the vowels of "Love me for ever", which 
are all accented, are O, E, O, E, E, with a rising 
scale toward the end. It is quite natural, when 



SOUND AND HARMONY 57 

you remember that the voice drops instinctively 
toward the end of a hopeless phrase, and rises ', 
towards the end of a hopeful one. 

Apart from this point, however, the gamut of 
the vowels comes into play in many ways. It must 
be plain to everybody that Shakespeare's great 
line, "The multitudinous seas incarnadine", sug- 
gests by its sound a storm-tossed waste of waters, 
and the resemblance between that and the deep 
agitation of Lady Macbeth 's soul. But why do 
the words suggest this ? Partly, no doubt, because 
of the huddled syllables of the long words 
multitudinous and incarnadine. The mere meaning 
might be conveyed in some such line as, "The 
many waters of the ocean dye", but then the 
hurry of the crowded syllables would be lost, with 
their suggestion of stormy turmoil. But that is 
not all. The vowels of multitudinous go up and 
down the scale alternately (exactly as they do in 
many familiar phrases like ding-dong, tick-tick, 
pit-pat, and so on) and suggest the up and down 
movement of the waves. There can be no question 
that the movement of the vowels in that one long 
word contributes largely to the sense of agitation 
which the word helps to suggest. 

Every word is a complex of sound, and the 
sentence is a complex of complexes of sound. 



58 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

And as the word may be of beautiful sound, like 

a musical chord, the sentence, as the larger unit, 

may be of beautiful sound, like a musical phrase. 

The general beauty of the sound in a sentence 

must obviously depend on the grouping of the 

different sounds it contains, and that is very largely 

a matter of managing the recurrence of particular 

sounds in a modulated way. I am sure that few 

people realise how large an element alliteration is 

in English style. Our earliest poetry, like the epic 

of Beowulf, depended in a very large degree upon 

alliteration, for the line was divided into halves 

by a marked pause, and in each half there was an 

accented syllable containing the same vowel or 

the same consonant as one of the accented syllables 

in the other half of the line. This kind of verse 

scarcely belongs in any proper sense to our 

English literature, for the language of Beowulf 

would be quite unintelligible to anyone except a 

scholar who had made a study of old English. 

But there was a revival of alliterative poetry in 

the fourteenth century. The readiest example of 

it is Langland's Piers Plowman, which begins: 

"In a somer season when soft was the sonne, 
I shope me in shroudes as I a shepe were, 
In habit as a heremite unholy of workes, 
Went wyde in this world wondres to here." 



SOUND AND HARMONY 59 

Alliterative verse which is roughly of this type is 
found as late as the sixteenth century. Evidently 
the mode had a strong hold on the popular mind. 
It is quite possible that a subconscious tradition 
dating from our ancient poetry may still be a 
factor in our enjoyment of English verse. 

There was a queer craze for alliteration with 
some writers of Elizabeth's days, which looks as 
if it must have been some sort of a revival of the 
older fashion. It was satirised in several con- 
temporary writers. Shakespeare makes fun of it 
in Love's Labour's Lost, where Holfernes says: 
"I will something affect the letter, for it argues 
facility", and then proceeds: 

"The preyful princess pierced and prick'd a pretty pleasing 

pricket j 

Some say a sorej but not a sore, till now made sore with 
shooting", 

and so on. Shakespeare satirised it again in the 
lines of Quince's prologue, in A Midsummer 
Night's Dream : 



Whereat with blade, with bloody blameful blade, 
He bravely broached his boiling bloody breast." 



Thomas Wilson, in The Arte of Rhetorike, which 
was published in 1553, writes: "Some use over- 
muche repetition of one letter, as pitifull povertie 



60 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

prayeth for a penie, but puffed presumption passeth 
not a poinct" The craze passed, but there have 
been much later writers, down to our own days, 
whose style has suffered from an excess of allite- 
ration. The natural attractiveness of alliteration is 
seen in the way that it prevails in innumerable 
proverbs and popular sayings like "Care killed a 
cat", "Love me a little, love me long", "In for a 
penny, in for a pound", and so on endlessly. I 
once pointed out that in two proverbs the mere 
alliteration has kept in use a couple of archaic 
words that would otherwise have been entirely 
forgotten. We still speak of "buying a pig in a 
poke", though poke has gone out of use except 
in dialects, and the ordinary man does not realise 
that the only survival of the word in modern 
English is the diminutive pocket, which is a 
pokette or little bag attached to the clothes. So we 
still speak of things being "as plain as a pike- 
staff", though the man in the street is quite 
unfamiliar with either a pike-staff, or a pack-staff, 
(12) as it really ought to be that is, the staff on 
which a pedlar rested his pack. So with familiar 
pairs of words like "bed and board", "dig and 
delve", "frills and furbelows", "hare and hounds", 
"kith and kin", "make cr mar", "neck or 
nothing", "pots and % pans", "sink or swim", 



SOUND AND HARMONY 61 

"watch and ward". It is manifestly the allitera- 
tion that keeps these coupled words in steady 
attachment from generation to generation. 

The instinctive attraction of alliteration is also 
well illustrated by some familiar quotations and 
misquotations. Thus John Norris has the line 
"Like angels' visits, short and bright", and 
Blair possibly borrowed this and altered it in his 
"Like angels' visits, short and far between". 
Campbell almost certainly borrowed Blair's line, 
and improved it into "Like angels' visits, few 
and far between". It is always quoted in the 
latter form: the alliteration of "/ew" and "/ar" 
has been enough to fix Campbell's version in the 
popular memory. A passage from Genesis iii, 19, 
"In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread", 
is nearly always quoted as, "In the sweat of thy 
brow shalt thou eat bread." The alliteration is the 
reason for the misquotation : "read" has brought 
in "row". Milton's line is perpetually quoted as 
"To-morrow to fresh fields and pastures new". 
He wrote "woods", but "/resh" has brought in 
"/ields". 

How instinctive alliteration is may be seen in 
numberless examples of classical English prose 
and poetry. In the Book of Common Prayer we 
have many phrases like ^ "most tumble and 



62 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

hearty thanks*' . . . "not only with our /ips, but 
in our /ives" . . . "the devices and desires of our 
own hearts' 1 . . . "from hardness of ^eart and 
contempt of Thy word and commandment" . . . 
"to bring forth the /ruits of the Spirit". ... In 
the Authorised Version of the Bible there are 
hundreds of examples like the following (to 
quote only from the first few Psalms): "Nor 
jtandeth in the way of winners, nor jitteth in the 
.feat of the scornful" . . . "Let us reak their onds 
asunder, and cast away their cords from us" . . . 
"I will declare the decree" . . . "//e ^eard me 
out of His /;oly &11" . . . "In the multitude of 
Thy mercy" . . . "What is wan that Thou art 
mindful of him?" . . . "The /owl of the air and 
the fish of the sea" . . . "A refuge in /imes of 
/rouble" . . . "The /aithful /ail from among the 
children of men" . . . "The lines are fallen unto 
me in pleasant places" . . . "He did fly upon the 
wings of the wind" . . . "Thy gentleness hath 
made me reat." . . . 

Nothing is more easily abused than this trick 
of alliteration ; nothing is more absurd when it is 
abused. On the other hand nothing is more 
effective when it is well done, and especially when 
it is masked. I mean by that when the alliteration 
does not show itself plainly in a number of sue- 



SOUND AND HARMONY 63 

cessive words beginning with the sound, but only 
makes itself felt as a verbal harmony, which upon 
analysis resolves itself into the prevalence of 
particular sounds in the sentence. But however it 
may be used, there can be no doubt that almost 
every fine passage in our literature, whether in 
verse or in prose, owes a good deal to the allite- 
rative method. 

Probably the readiest examples in English 
(and some of the finest) are from Coleridge. 
Everyone can recognise the effect in lines like 
these from the Ancient Mariner: 

"The /air freeze bkw^ the white /bamy?eu>, 

The furrow followed free : 
We were the/irst that ever burst 
Into that ji/ent jea", 

or in these from Kubla Khan: 

"In Xanadu did ATubla Allan 
A stately pleasure dome decree, 
Where Alph the sacred river ran 
Through caverns measureless to man 
Down to a sunless jea !" 

It is to be noted that the effect of alliteration 
in many great passages of our literature is largely 
increased when the dominant sounds occur in the 
emphatic words, and often in emphatic words 



64 SOME SECRETS OF t STYLE 

that are repeated. Here is an example from In 
Memoriam : 

"This truth came borne with bier and pall 
I felt it, when I sorrow' d most, 
'Tis better to have loved and lost 
Than never to have loved at all", 



where the effect of the stanza depends mostly 
on "/oved and /ost . . . /oved at a//", though the 
B's and P's and F's (which are closely related 
letters) also bear their part. Here is another 
example from the same poem: 

"And, even when she turn'd the curse 
Had fallen, and her future Lord 
Was drown'd in passing thro' the ford, 
Or killed in falling from his horse", 

where the music of the lines depends upon 
"/alien . . ,/uture . . .ford . . ./ailing", all words 
to which a natural emphasis is given. Moreover, 
two other important words in the lines begin 
with the same sound "oirse" . . . "billed". How 
much depends on the similar sounds of the 
emphatic words may be shown by making a 
simple but sacrilegious experiment. Take the 
lines of Wordsworth : 

"But an old age serene and bright 
And lovely as a Lapland night 
Shall lead thee to thy grave", 



SOUND AND HARMONY 65 

and rewrite them thus : 

"But an old age serene and bright 
And beauteous as a Russian night 
Shall lead thee to thy grave", 

and it appears at once how much of the music 
lies in the alliterative "lovely . . . Lapland . . . 

lead" 

There are innumerable examples where the 
similarity of sound is not so apparent at the first 
glance, but where it is nevertheless a large factor 
in the effect of the associated words. When 
Coventry Patmore writes: 

"The snow-drift heaps against the hut 
And night is pierc'd with stars", 

the effect appears at first to be wholly due to the 
imaginative quality of the word pierced, with its 
suggestion of the pall of darkness and the points 
of light which stab it through. But here again the 
sound is a vital element, as you see if you spell 
the last line in a graphic and phonetic way: "And 
night is pieRST with STaRS." The same thing 
is true, I am persuaded, of almost every great 
passage in our literature. We are impressed by a 
general beauty of a sentence or a stanza, and 
perhaps by the happy use of a particular word 

E 



66 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

here and there, but when we scrutinise the 
passage we find that these things are all quali- 
fied by a harmony of sound, which depends 
on the prevalence and the proportion of some 
particular consonants and vowels (and more 
particularly consonants). Take the wonderful 
lines of Milton: 

"Not that fair field 

Of Enna, where Proserpin gathering flowers, 
Herself a fairer flower, by gloomy Dis 
Was gathered." 

Now print it in a graphic fashion : 

"NoT THaT FaiR FieLD 

OF Enna, wheRe PRoSeRpin gaTHeRing FloweRS, 
HeRSeLF a FaiReR FLoweR, by gLoomy DiS 
WaS gaTHeReD." 

Curiously enough, a similar passage from Shake- 
speare, of a like wonderful beauty, yields almost 
exactly the same result: 

"O Proserpina 

For the flowers now that frighted thou let'st fall 
From Dis's wagon ! Daffodils 
That come before the swallow dares and take 
The winds of March with beauty." 



SOUND AND HARMONY 67 

Again print the lines graphically : 

"O PRoSeRpina 
FoR THe FLoweRS now THaT FRighTeD 

THou LeT'ST FaLL 
FRom DiS'S wagon ! DaFFoDiLS 
THaT come beFoRe THe SwaLLow DaReS 

anD Take 
The winDS oF MaRch wiTH beauTy." 

Both these great passages are actually symphonies 
in D, F, L, R, S, T, Th. In the first passage 
these seven sounds are about three-quarters, and 
in the second passage they are nearly four-fifths, 
of the effective consonantal sounds a proportion 
which is very much higher than the normal one. 
Here is another example from Milton where 
the alliteration is scarcely seen at a first glance, 
but is nevertheless a principal element in the 
melody of the lines : 

"The air 

Floats as they pass, fanned with unnumbered plumes: 
From branch* to branch the smaller birds with song 
Solaced the woods, and spread their painted wings 
Till even." 

Now there is a special importance about the sound 
with which a word begins and the sound with 
which it ends, merely because the beginning and 



68 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

the end of a word naturally give prominence to 
the sound. Moreover, some words are more 
important than others, and therefore carry more 
emphasis. Look at the beginnings of the principal 
words : 

"The air 
FLoats as they Pass, Fanned with unnumbered 

PLumes: 

From Branch to Branch the Smaller Birds with Song 
Solaced the Woods, and SPread their Painted Wings 
Till even." 

The main pattern of initial sounds in the line is : 

F, L, P, F, P, L, 
Fj B> Bj S> Bj S. 
S, W, S, P, P, W. 

But that is not all. Look at the terminal sounds 
of the words : 

"The air 
FloatS aS they paSS, fanneD with unnumbereD 

plumeS : 

From branSH to branSH the smaller birDS with song 
SolaS'D the wooDS, and spreaD their painteD wingS 
Till even." 

The whole scheme of sound, therefore, rings the 



SOUND AND HARMONY 69 

changes on B, F, L, P, and W, with a constant 
accompaniment of D and S, especially of final 
and semi-final D and S. The last point is charac- 
teristic, for Milton was fond of sibilants, as we 
have seen. 



Ill 

MEANING AND SELECTION 

LET us now pass from the question of sound, 
though it will inevitably recur, to other qualities 
of the word. We have agreed that style is con- 
cerned, first and last, with the choice of words. 
The thousands of words in the language are there 
ready for the writer's use, and it is his business 
to choose the words that are best for his purpose, 
remembering their significance, and their sound, 
and their associations, all in combination with 
these various attributes in the other words which 
are grouped with them in the sentence and in 
the paragraph. The range of choice is limited 
by all these considerations until it actually 
becomes a fairly narrow one in most cases, if 
the result is to be literature, but the number of 
words that it is abstractly possible to use is 
enormous, as any dictionary is sufficient to show. 
It is extraordinary, by the way, what drivel is 
written from time to time as to the extent of the 
vocabulary used by different classes of people. 
Mr. G. Bernard Shaw, who, as the creator of 
the phonetic expert in Pygmalion^ really ought to 



MEANING AND SELECTION 71 

know better, recently gave fresh currency to the 
statement that an English peasant only uses 
"about 350 words and a few expletives". The 
estimate, which goes back to Max Miiller, is 
utterly absurd, as a moment's thought will show 
anybody. The ploughman would need most, if 
not all, of the 350 words for necessary references 
to himself, his horse, and his plough. Here are 
some of the obvious words relating to himself, 
with the necessary implications man, woman, 
boy, girl, baby, father, mother, brother, sister, 
husband, wife, tall, short, fat, thin, head, brow, 
hair, beard, black, brown, red, grey, white, eye, 
ear, nose, mouth, lips, teeth, tongue, gums, 
cheek, chin, throat, neck, shoulder, back, body, 
arm, elbow, joint, hand, finger, thumb, nail, 
skin, rib, backbone, leg, hip, thigh, knee, ankle, 
foot, heel, toe, hat, coat, pocket, sleeve, shirt, 
breeches, stockings, boots. There are more than 
sixty words in that list that every man who is not 
an imbecile must know, all related to his own 
person, or necessarily involved in the knowledge 
of such words as are so related. Then there are 
the thousands of other words relating to the home, 
the village, the other people he knows, the farm, 
the animals, the crops, the soil, the processes of 
tillage, the weather, sights and sounds, times and 



72 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

seasons, food, sleep, work, and so on. As a matter 
of fact, the issue has been scientifically investi- 
gated, and it has been proved that the vocabulary 
of a Swedish peasant amounts to at least twenty- 
six thousand words. It is true that this is larger 
than Shakespeare's vocabulary, which only con- 
tains about twenty thousand words, but this is 
easily explained, though it looks startling enough 
at first. A vast number of words used in ordinary 
life as, for example, most words belonging to 
the daily occupations of the people are never 
or hardly ever required by a poet who writes on 
elevated themes. It illustrates this, that Milton, 
the most scholarly of our poets, who himself 
introduced some new words into the language, 
only used a vocabulary of eight thousand words. 
The exalted and restricted nature of his subjects, 
as compared with the variety of Shakespeare's, 
explains the large difference, at least in part. 

Now out of the several thousand words, at the 
very lowest estimate, that constitute the vocabu- 
lary of every writer, he must seek to choose the 
best word at each point, if he is to be a good 
writer. It is said that Fox was once talking of 
Pitt, and remarked, "I can find words, but Mr. 
Pitt always finds the word." The whole philosophy 
of style is really involved in that remark. Any 



MEANING AND SELECTION 73 

man who is in his right mind can find words of 
some sort, even though he gabbles monstrously. 
Any educated man ought to be able to find 
better words, for his knowledge should give him 
a wider choice of words, and a more accurate 
sense of the meaning of the words he employs. 
But a really great writer, a master of style, can 
find the best words of all, for he not only knows 
a large range of words, and what they properly 
mean, but he is sensitive to the finer shades of 
significance and sound, and he has an instinctive 
skill in grouping the words together in the most 
musical and the most suggestive way. And there 
must be one word, when every issue is taken 
into account the sound, the meaning, the 
history, the associations of the word, and its 
relations in all these respects with the other words 
that are grouped with it which is the best word, 
the only word, the inevitable word, in that special 
instance. As Flaubert once wrote, "There is 
only one noun that can express your idea, only 
one verb that can put that idea in motion, and 
only one adjective that is the right epithet for 
that noun." Though that sounds extravagant 
there must be a sense in which it is true, for there 
must be always one word which is more apt than 
any other for a precise use at a particular time. 



74 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

Such a thing as an absolute synonym scarcely 
exists, since there are so many subtle differences 
in shades of significance as between words that 
mean roughly the same thing. When you add to 
the delicate conditions of that choice such other 
considerations as the sound of the word, and the 
sound of the word in relation to the different 
sounds of the words associated with it in the 
sentence, and the echoes which a word awakens 
because of its use in great passages of literature, 
it must be true that there is always one word 
which is the most perfect utterance of one 
particular thought in one particular connection. 

As I have already suggested, there really are 
no exact synonyms. When several words have 
roughly the same meaning, differences will always 
develop slight shades of difference in significance 
and suggestiveness. Sometimes there will be also 
differences in grammatical use, while there is 
always the original difference of sound to be 
considered. All these subtle variations condition 
the quality of the word, and make one word more 
fitting than another in a particular employment, 
when all is taken into account. Think of the 
words begin and commence, for example. Begin is a 
Saxon word. Commence is from the French com- 
mencer (and ultimately from the Latin). Begin is 



MEANING AND SELECTION 75 

at once a more familiar and a more imaginative 
word than commence, which has something of a 
formal and official sense. In telling a story to a 
friend you would not say, "I will commence at the 
commencement", but "I will begin at the begin- 
ning". You might refer to "the commencement of 
the Easter Term", but you would refer to "the 
beginning of your married life*'. Imagine the first 
sentence in the Bible, "In the beginning God 
created the heavens and the earth" changed into 
"In the commencement God created the heavens 
and the earth 1" Milton could write: 

"Begin, then, Sisters of the sacred well 
That from beneath the seat of Jove doth spring; 
Begin, and somewhat loudly sweep the string." 

He could not possibly have written : 

"Commence, then, Sisters of the sacred well ..." 



Then, as a matter of English grammatical idiom, 
commence can only properly take a verbal noun 
after it, "I commenced writing", whereas begin can 
take either that or an infinitive, "I began writing", 
or "I began to write". Moreover, a good writer 
would generally avoid a too close association 
between either word and other words of similar 
sound, so that, for example, he might write, 



76 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

"Hence we begin . . ." but would avoid, "Hence 
we commence . . ."> or he might write, "We 
commence in . . ." but would avoid, "We begin 
in . . .", because of the jingle in the latter phrases. 

Now here are two words which are as nearly 
synonyms, perhaps, as any two words can be, but 
we find that they differ in all these respects one 
is a native Saxon word, the other is a borrowed 
French word; one is the simple word, the other 
is the formal word; hence the one is the more 
colloquial and also the more poetical, and the 
other less so; one has rather more flexibility than 
the other in correct grammatical usage; and each 
word would more or less debar the use of other 
words of like sound in its immediate neighbour- 
hood. Similar considerations apply to any pair of 
words, or any group of words, that are classed as 
synonyms because their meaning is broadly the 
same. 

There is, therefore, such a thing as the mot 
jusfe, though there was a craze for it in the 
'nineties which became ridiculous. I cherish the 
story (which is perfectly true, by the way) that 
on one occasion Henry James, who was the high 
priest of that particular cult, had been led by 
some of his admirers to see a wonderful view. 
The circle waited reverently to hear the perfect 



MEANING AND SELECTION 77 

word of description uttered. "My dear boy", said 
James, grasping the arm of his guide, "How 
er how" the devotees held their breath 
"how er how er my dear boy, how awfully 
jolly\" It was a very salutary phrase for those 
fin-de-siecle scribblers to hear. Nevertheless all 
style is a quest for the apt word, and there is 
often a word that is supremely apt. The gift that 
enables a writer to find it may make him im- 
mortal, even though his other gifts are few. That 
was the greatness of Gray; as our living poet has 
said, he was one: 

"who on worn thoughts conferred 
That second youth, the perfect word, 
The elected and predestined phrase." 

This is not the sole significance of Gray in 
English letters, since he had a feeling for nature 
and a note of romance (gained largely from his 
interest in Norse and Celtic poetry) that made 
him a harbinger of the latter spring: he is one 
of the poets of the middle of the eighteenth 
century who is a precursor of the Lyrical Revival. 
That, however, is a relative and historical interest. 
What he definitely had himself, as a personal 
gift, was the ability to find the inevitable phrase 
which becomes the final utterance of familiar 



78 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

thoughts. The theme of the Elegy in a Country 
Churchyard is as hackneyed a theme as a poet 
could have, but how perfectly expressed! "Death 
the fate of all men, the rich and^ 



pol5F~an"cr the^lowty^aliJte^-^rt had been said a 
thousand tiifTesTBuTKere it is said once for all : 

"The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow'r 

And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave, 
Awaits alike th' inevitable hour, 

The paths of glory lead but to the grave." 

Now though it sounds elementary to say so, the 
first thing to be regarded in the choice of the 
right word is the meaning of it. The obligation 
to use words in their proper sense rests upon 
everybody who uses language at all, and especially 
on those who desire to use it well. We are all 
fallible, and even famous writers sometimes 
transgress in respect of the obvious meaning of a 
word. Charlotte Bronte writes of "a very unique 
child". The ex-schoolmistress ought to have 
known that there can be no degrees here. A thing 
is unique the only thing of its kind or it is 
not. It cannot be more or less so. George Eliot 
writes of "the workhouse, euphuistically called the 
'College* ". She meant euphemistically. Euphuism 
is the affected Elizabethan style of which Lyly's 



MEANING AND SELECTION 79 

Euphues set the fashion the kind of thing that 
Shakespeare satirised in Armado's talk, in Love's 
Labour's Lost. Euphemism is the giving of a 
better name to a thing than it deserves, as when 
the Greeks called the Furies the Eumenides, 
"the gracious ones**, and when Ancient Pistol 
preferred "convey" to "steal". Macaulay, in the 
essay on Milton, writes of "the observation of 
the Sabbath". He meant the observance of it. It 
is true that a rule may be observed or kept, and 
also that the way that this is done may be observed 
or noted, but the two senses of the verb require 
two different nouns, and we ought to speak of 
the keeping of the regulation as our observance 
of it, and of any notice we take of the way that it 
is kept as our observation of the fact. 
Byron writes in Childe Harold\ 

"The desert, forest, cavern, breaker's foam, 
Were unto him companionship j they spake 
A mutual language . . ."" 

He means "a common language". The same mis- 
use of the word occurs in the title of one of 
Dickens' novels, Our Mutual Friend. The word 
mutual (which is ultimately from the Latin muto) 
ought to mean what is interchanged. Mr. Smith 
may have a high regard for Mr. Brown, and Mr. 



8o SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

Brown may have a high regard for Mr. Smith; 
in that case the regard is mutual. But if Mr. 
Smith and Mr. Brown are both on friendly terms 
with Mr. Robinson, he is their common friend. 
Mr. Robinson is not a reciprocal relation, inter- 
changed between Mr. Smith and Mr. Brown ; he 
is a person to whom they have a common relation. 
It may be remarked, however, that there is ample 
warrant for the loose use of mutual in Shake- 
speare. He writes of "a wild and wanton herd of 
youthful and unhandled colts" : 

"If they but hear perchance a trumpet sound, 
Or any air of music touch their ears, 
You shall perceive them make a mutual stand", 

and again of the baying of "the hounds of 
Sparta" : 

"Besides the groves, 

The skies, the fountains, every region near 
Seem'd all one mutual cry", 

and again where Nestor says : 

"It is supposed 

He that meets Hector issues from our choice, 
And choice, being mutual act of all our souls, 
Makes merit her election, and doth boil, 
As 'twere from forth us all." 



MEANING AND SELECTION 81 

In fact, mutual in Shakespeare always means 
common. 

Though words are used in their correct signi- 
ficance, the meaning of a sentence may be 
obscured by placing the words in a wrong order. 
In a note on Gray's lines: 

"Ye towers of Julius, London's lasting shame, 
With many a foul and midnight murther fed", 

that very scholarly writer, Mr. J. W. Hales, 
remarks that "the oldest part of the Tower of 
London is said to have been built by Julius 
Caesar without any authority". This means that 
Julius Caesar had no authority to build it. What 
the author meant, of course, was that Julius 
Caesar is said to have built it, without there being 
any authority for the statement. Similarly, Lecky 
wrote, in the History of European Morals, "Another 
hermit, being very holy, received pure white 
bread every day from heaven ; but, being extrava- 
gantly elated, the bread became worse and worse, 
till it became perfectly black." This means that 
the bread became extravagantly elated. Lecky 
meant that the hermit did. The sentence should 
have read, "but as he was extravagantly elated at 
this", or something like that. So, again, Swift 
makes Gulliver say, "It contained a warrant for 

F 



82 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

conducting me and my retinue to Traldragdubh 
or Trildrogdrib, for it is pronounced both ways, 
as nearly as I can remember, by a party of ten 
horse." This means that the party of ten horse 
pronounced the name of the Lugnaggian town 
both ways. The confusion might have been saved 
by putting the clause about the pronunciation 
of the name into brackets, thus: "(for it is pro- 
nounced both ways, as nearly as I can remember)", 
or between dashes, as is done in some modern 
editions, thus: " for it is pronounced both ways, 
as nearly as I can remember ", or better, by 
rewriting the sentence, and saying: "It con- 
tained a warrant for conducting me and my 
retinue, by a party often horse, to Traldragdubh." 
. . . Here we may consider the matter of punctua- 
tion. 

There is everything to be said for careful 
punctuation as a visual aid in reading. But 
punctuation should never really be made respon- 
sible for the meaning. There are some comic 
examples, which have become almost classical, 
where the sense is perverted by the lack of a 
comma, or altered by a change in the position of 
it. Such is the sentence in which the school 
inspector illustrated the importance of punctua- 
tion to the illiterate mayor who thought it useless 



MEANING AND SELECTION 83 

he told a boy to write on the blackboard, 
"The mayor says the inspector is a fool". "Now," 
said he, "put a comma after the word mayor, and 
another after the word inspector." But ambiguity 
should always be avoided by the arrangement of 
the words without reference to punctuation at 
all. It is always wrong to make the meaning of 
a sentence depend on a comma, or any other 
point. The meaning should be unmistakable 
because of the relative position of the words, 
apart from anything so adventitious as punctua- 
tion. 

This is really a minor example of the principle 
of clarity. Since words are used to convey meaning, 
the very first requirement is that the meaning 
should be clear, and the arrangement of the words 
in the sentence, as well as the choice of the actual 
words which are used, should be such as to make 
the meaning quite plain. For perspicuity means, 
as Quintilian said, that "care is taken, not that 
the hearer may understand, if he will, but that he 
must understand, whether he will or not". 

There can be no real justification for obscurity 
of style unless it is meant to represent some 
confusion or some perplexity. Then obscure 
language may appropriately suggest an entangle- 
ment in the facts of the situation described, or an 



84 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

inconsequence in the thoughts of the person 
represented. But otherwise there is no possible 
excuse for an involved and difficult style, where, 
as George Herbert says : 



"he that reads, divines, 
Catching the sense at two removes." 



This is the condemnation of Meredith. Someone 
has said wittily that Browning was born with a 
stammer, but that Meredith cultivated one. That 
is about the truth of it. Meredith's style, with all 
its occasional felicity, is deliberately and affectedly 
obscure. He took pains to write in an oblique 
and perplexed way, as much as some men have 
taken pains to write clearly. I believe (though I 
shall certainly be thought a Philistine for saying 
so) that this alone will debar Meredith from any 
very high and permanent place in our literature. 

With Browning the issue is different. His 
alleged obscurity has become an amazing legend. 
There is a story to the effect that Douglas 
Jerrold, when recovering from a bad illness, was 
left alone for the first time, while his wife went 
out. He was turning over some new books, and 
started to read Sordello. He read a page or two 
and found that he could not understand the lines 
at all. Then he had the awful suspicion that his 



MEANING AND SELECTION 85 

mind had become affected during his illness. On 
his wife's return he thrust the book into her hand 
and said, "Read this!" She looked at a page or 
two, and confessed that she did not know what 
it meant. "Thank Godl" said Jerrold, "then I 
have not lost my reason!" There is another story 
which relates that Tennyson said there were only 
two lines in the poem which he could understand; 
the first, "Who will, may hear Bordello's story 
told", and the last, "Who would has heard 
Sordello's story told", and they were both lies! 

But the obscurity of Browning (which in any 
case has been much exaggerated) is not assumed 
and cultivated, like Meredith's; it is his proper 
idiom. The same thing is true, by the way, of 
Carlyle. Browning had a genius for the grotesque, 
and his peculiar style fits the subjects with which 
his imagination dealt so well the wandering 
thoughts of the old bishop as he lies dying, about 
his sons, and his dead mistress, and his dead 
rival, and his tomb in St. Praxed's and the 
incense and the blessed mutter of the Mass; the 
rambling talk bf Brother Lippo, the painter in 
his friar's gown, running after the girls in the 
street when midnight is past, seized by the 
watch, and excusing himself for his escapade by 
telling his captors about his life and work, until 



86 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

the sky begins to lighten with the dawn. Browning 
was at his best with themes like these, where the 
whole interest lies in an odd inconsistency, an 
element of the psychologically grotesque, as one 
might say, and an uneven, turbid, elliptical style 
is appropriate to such themes. But apart from the 
gargoyles of literature, such as 'Carlyle and 
Browning, whose very genius lies in a singularity 
of mind which is naturally expressed by an oddity 
of language, there is no excuse for a perverse and 
contorted style. 

There is an eminent thinker alive to-day 
nothing in the world would induce me to name 
him! who writes in a style which is most 
singularly elusive and oblique. The result is that 
the task of reading his books is a really formidable 
one. One can read a sentence over a second and 
even a third time, and be perfectly well aware of 
every possible meaning of every single word in 
it, and yet wonder finally what the sentence does 
precisely mean. I am charitable enough to sup- 
pose that this style is the result of extreme 
subtlety of mind, but I confess that the effect 
upon me is sometimes rather like that produced 
upon the company at the Cheerybles* party when 
the old workman who was returning thanks got 
mixed, and finished a very confused sentence by 



MEANING AND SELECTION 87 

saying, "Leastways, in a contrairy sense, which 
the meaning is the same." After all, language 
was given us, despite the witty Frenchman's 
epigram, to express and not to conceal our 
thoughts, and to express them as clearly and 
unmistakably as may be. The very greatest 
poetry and prose always have the mark of clarity. 
Now the first principle of clarity, as I sug- 
gested before, is to use words in their proper 
meaning, and the meaning of a word depends 
finally on its etymology. It is well to know the 
derivation of a word, and usually it is well to 
pay some attention to it in the way the word is 
employed. All depends on the degree to which the 
etymology of the word presents itself to the eye 
and to the mind. Thus when we use the word 
alarm we do not generally think of the original 
sense of the word, even if we know it. It is from 
the Italian alVarme "To arms!" the cry that 
alarms the camp when it is attacked, and bids 
the warriors stand to their weapons. But when we 
speak of being "alarmed by a sudden noise", 
there is no suggestion in the word of a military 
kind. The etymology is out of sight, except to 
one who is specially interested in the derivation 
of words. If we speak of "a costermonger's 
barrow" there is now no reference to apples, the 



SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

costards which the costardmonger used to sell ; and 
if we speak of "a parson's surplice" there is now 
no reference to a robe worn above a furred 
garment, but that is the original meaning of it 
(superpelliciuniy from pellis). On the other hand, 
the etymology of a word like decade stands out 
in the very form of it. In a debate as to the 
revision of some regulation at stated periods, 
when a decade had been suggested as a suitable 
term, I once heard an eminent ecclesiastic say 
that if such a period were thought too long, "a 
decade of five or seven 'years might be substituted !" 
The word bears its own witness that it means a 
precise period of ten years, and can mean nothing 
else. 

Occasionally we read in the newspapers that 
the population of a town or a province "has been 
decimated" by an epidemic, or some other dis- 
aster. The word originated from a Roman 
punishment: sometimes when a cohort had 
mutinied, every tenth man was put to death. 
Now the word is often used when there is no 
reference to that exact proportion, and when it 
merely means that a large number of the parti- 
cular population perished. Here, I think, there is 
some defence for the usage : if it were said that 
half the population or a quarter of the population 



MEANING AND SELECTION 89 

died we should not expect it to be an exact arith- 
metical statement, but a rough approximation; 
and it might be pleaded that decimated is used in 
a like way. "A tenth of the people" may mean 
only roughly a tenth, but a scholar would be 
likely to avoid such a use of decimate because of 
its precise historical meaning. 

Many people who have an instinct for accuracy 
would avoid "under the circumstances", because 
they would feel the force of the Latin prefix; the 
phrase would sound to them like "beneath the 
sum?#Wings". It is only fair to point out, though, 
that there is something to be said in defence of 
the phrase, for there is an idiomatic use of 
"under" in English in the sense of "subject to". 
When the Apostle Paul writes of the Jews as 
"under the law", or you refer to a friend as being 
"under the doctor", or a newspaper records that 
a criminal is "under sentence of death", that 
does not suggest any local sense of below in 
contrast to above. It is this idiomatic sense of 
"under" that accounts for the phrase "under the 
circumstances", though I confess that I should 
avoid it myself, with the feeling that the circum 
is rather too obvious. 

It is an odd fact that sometimes when the 
etymology of two words is exactly parallel a 



90 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

marked disparity in quality and usage has 
developed between them. To give a very trivial 
illustration of this, there is a considerable dif- 
ference in the associations of the words, and con- 
sequently a considerable difference in the sug- 
gestions aroused in our minds, when we speak of 
a surtout and when we speak of an overall. The 
one word immediately suggests to my mind Mr. 
Micawber "in a brown surtout and black tights 
and shoes* ', as he first appeared at Murdstone 
and Grinby's; and then the England of a hundred 
years ago, the stagecoach to Canterbury, the 
King's Bench prison, and so forth. The other 
word suggests to me a plumber in his overalls, 
as he recently appeared in my house to repair 
the water pipes in the kitchen, with his due 
accompaniment of a grimy apprentice, a bag of 
tools, and a good deal of hammering. The 
imagination is staggered by the thought of Mr. 
Micawber in overalls, or the plumber in a 
surtout. Yet surtout and overall derive in exactly 
the same way, and have the same original 
meaning (super-totus, sur-tout y over-all). But the 
more dignified word is from the French, and the 
other is a Saxon compound. 

It is generally true that we ought not to use 
words in a way which perverts their proper etymo- 



MEANING AND SELECTION 91 

logical meaning, but there are some instances 
where such a variation of meaning has become 
established in the language. Thus "impertinent" 
means "not holding to the point", and we keep 
to the original meaning in "pertinent" "a 
pertinent remark" is a remark which is apt. 
But "an impertinent remark" does not now 
usually mean a remark that is not apt, but a 
remark that is rude. "Impertinent" has come to 
mean "insolent". That significance is now settled, 
and it would be foolish not to recognise the 
accomplished fact. Similarly "indifferent" pro- 
perly means "impartial" "that they may truly 
and indifferently minister justice" in the suffrage 
for magistrates in the Book of Common Prayer 
means "that they may truly and impartially 
minister justice". Now we still retain this, more 
or less, as one sense of the word : when I say that 
I am indifferent as to some issue, I mean that I 
am impartial in the matter, that I have no strong 
conviction either way, and that I am not pledged 
to this side or that. But "indifferent" has developed 
another sense, and has come to mean less than 
excellent, rather poor, rather bad. To say that a 
poet writes indifferent verse means that he writes 
mediocre verse : if it is not abominably bad, it is 
at least not very good. Now this use again has 



92 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

so established itself that no man in his senses 
would propose to condemn it. 

These are fairly clear cases, but there are some 
which are still on trial, as it were. * 'Practically'* 
ought strictly to mean "in practice, in actual 
fact", as opposed to "in theory, in abstract 
principle*'. But it has almost come to mean 
"virtually; in all but some minor, nominal, or 
theoretical sense". "I have practically finished 
writing the book" means "I have finished it all 
but some small matter of revision", or something 
of that sort. The great humorist, Sir W. S. Gilbert, 
was a magistrate as well as a writer of the libretto 
of light opera, and once when he was on the 
bench in the Edgware Police Court and a case 
regarding a man's maintenance of his wife was 
being heard, a witness told the Court that the 
husband was "practically living with another 
woman". "What do you mean?" said Gilbert. 
"Practically living with another woman! Do you 
suggest that he can do that sort of thing theoreti- 
cally?" The point is obvious, and everyone who 
has a feeling for accuracy in language will be 
inclined to sympathise with the rebuke. But 
there is another side to the question, after all. 
What the unfortunate witness meant was that 
the man was living with another woman as her 



MEANING AND SELECTION 93 

husband, to all intents and purposes, though he 
was not, and could not be, married to her; that 
in practice, though not under the forms of the 
law, he was living with the woman as his wife. I 
cannot believe that any objection on the score of 
a strict and etymological use of the word is now 
going to stop the development by which in general 
use "practically" has come to mean "as a matter 
of general fact, though there may be some slight 
qualification to make'*. Probably no one but a 
pedant will object to it fifty years hence, for when 
all is said, general usage is the one and only 
standard that exists in language. 

We have seen that words sometimes change 
their proper historical meaning, and when the 
change is sanctioned by a general and established 
usage it must be accepted. On the other hand, 
we ought to resist any perversion of the meaning 
of a word as long as we can. One influence that 
leads to a perverted use and eventually to a per- 
verted meaning of words is the desire for 
emphasis. I have often seen on the bills advertising 
a play at a provincial theatre the words, "Personal 
Appearance of Mr. Vincent Crummies", and 
lately I saw "Positive Personal Appearance of 
Mr. Vincent Crummies". A member of my 
family assured me that she recently saw a poster 



94 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

announcing the "Absolutely Positive Personal 
Appearance*' of a famous actor. The absurdity 
of these phrases is obvious, if you think for a 
moment: "Absolute" has no meaning except in 
contrast to "relative"; "positive" and "personal" 
have no meaning except in contrast to "negative" 
and "impersonal". Now it is difficult enough to 
realise what an impersonal appearance of anybody 
would be like, but the mind staggers at the 
thought of a relatively negative impersonal 
appearance. What the quoted words are meant to 
convey is, of course, that the actor is coming 
himself, and not sending an understudy, and 
"absolutely", "personal", and "positive" are used 
to underline that. The words have merely the 
emphatic quality of italics. And so with a go$d 
deal of slang, and "indeed of profanity, 

Sometimes a fine word suffers abuse at the 
hands of really good writers. As Doll Tearsheet 
remarked, "A captain! God's light 1 these villains 
will make the word as odious as the word occupy, 
which was an excellent good word before it was 
ill-sorted." Undoubtedly some words are rather 
spoiled by becoming the literary fashion of the 
moment. For there is an odd preference for 
particular words, and particular uses of words, 
among literary folk from time to time. A corre- 



MEANING AND SELECTION 95 

spondent recently complained, in the pages of 
the Manchester Guardian, that three times in one 
issue of that great journal the word gesture had 
been used in a sense "for which there is no 
warrant except in journalese" if I remember 
aright, a recent educational arrangement was "an 
encouraging gesture"; by refusing to attend a 
lunch a cricket team had "made their gesture"; 
and some action of a politician was "a significant 
gesture". The editorial defence was that language 
is a living thing which develops new uses, and 
that "an action may express a mode of the mind 
as a literal gesture does, and therefore may be 
described as a gesture itself". A perfectly sound 
contention. The usage seems to have developed 
within the last thirty years or so, but there is 
little doubt that it has come to stay, and it is 
pedantic to quarrel with it. On the other hand, 
the use of the word in this sense three times in a 
single issue of a newspaper suggests that it has 
become an obsession, and it would be well for 
every person on the staff of the paper to hesitate 
when he thinks of using it. 

There is a mere vogue in words, and the good 
writer will be on his guard against it: he will 
prefer to be, like Justice Shallow, somewhat in 
the rearward of the fashion. There are many 



96 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

curious examples of this craze for particular words. 
Meticulous had a run some years ago. Arnold 
Bennett probably had a good deal to do with it. 
The worst of it was that the meaning of the word 
was, and is, very often misunderstood. Mentality 
is a word that is being greatly overworked at the 
present time. I do not think it is redundant; 
properly used it expresses what would be difficult 
to express otherwise, except by the use of half a 
dozen words. But, on the other hand, it is used 
dozens of times when "thought", "intellect", or 
"intelligence" would be far better terms to 
describe what is meant. 

The tendency is also for words to become 
debased by colloquial use, for speech is naturally 
less careful and less deliberate than any form of 
written words. There is a difference which is 
quite inevitable between the spoken and the 
written language. It is safe to say of any great 
writer that his own written style is one in which 
he never quarrelled, or drove a bargain, or made 
love, and most certainly one in which his mother 
or his nurse never spoke to him. Even John 
Bunyan, who wrote the simplest Saxon, must have 
talked more simply and more loosely than he 
wrote. The fact is that the written style, however 
simple it may be, is naturally rather more con- 



MEANING AND SELECTION 97 

scious and more dignified than the spoken style, 
exactly as there are natural differences even in 
the latter. Any good speaker, however simple his 
diction may be, is rather more deliberate, rather 
more correct, and distinctly more aware of himself, 
in addressing an audience, than in ordinary con- 
versation. So in the matter of writing. The con- 
tracted words, the loose, rapid, and elliptical 
constructions that we use in common speech, no 
one would use in writing a serious book. More- 
over, as we are more careful of accuracy when 
we write, we are also more careful of the order in 
which we place the words we use, the sound of 
them when grouped together into phrases, and 
the general suggestiveness of those phrases to 
the mind. There is more artifice in written prose 
than in the kind of prose which M. Jourdain 
had talked all his life, without knowing what it 
was. The artifice should not become too obvious, 
and give the effect of artificiality, but there is 
artifice in prose, and there is still more artifice in 
poetry. "With how sad steps, O Moon, thou 
climb'st the skies 1 How silently, and with how 
wan a face!" is, after all, only a more beautiful 
and a more imaginative way of saying, "The 
moon rises slowly, looks pale, and makes no 
noise." The fashion in which Sir Philip Sidney 

c 



98 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

says it is a more beautiful and more imaginative 
way of saying it, because it is a way in which 
there is a more deliberate artistry, which is there- 
fore more aware of the imaginative and the 
beautiful. This is a point of some importance. 
However we rightly emphasise the quality of 
intuition and inspiration in poetry, the fact 
remains that every great poet has been a great 
craftsman, and the noblest passages he has ever 
written were wrought out with art, doubtless with 
the art that conceals art, which is the highest 
kind of art, but nevertheless with a deliberate 
purpose of loveliness, and a definite artifice 
dedicated to the creation of it. 

That artistry consists largely in the choice of 
words that are apt, stately, musical, memorable, 
daring. Quintilian described Horace as felicissime 
audax in his use of words, and there is probably 
always something bold as well as something 
fortunate in a particularly memorable phrase. If 
the choice is too reckless the words seem mis- 
placed and ridiculous ; if it is too timid the words 
become merely commonplace. But^if the words 
surprise us, as Keats said that poetry ought t 

|||l , -^ , immm _f*r~- ~ ""'* "^"< 

ie excesspsiicl ^nptoy^ngiflanty*, the 
result_is^not readily forgottenT "Many "iTTihc 
passage in literature owes its~memorable quality 



MEANING AND SELECTION 99 

to some verbal audacity, some ardent and daring 
use of a word. George Macdonald once wrote, 
in reference to Byron (though the phrase surely 
has much more application to the work of other 
and greater poets), of "the physical force of 
words**. There is perhaps nothing which exhibits 
poetic genius more strikingly than this com- 
pelling use of words as if the poet took a word 
and (in spite of itself and all its regular rules of 
behaviour) made it mean what he wanted. This 
is very noticeable in Shakespeare. No doubt it 
was conditioned .in his case by the looseness of 
Elizabethan syntax, but that does not explain 
everything. There are many examples (most of 
all, I think, in Antony and Cleopatra) where he 
forces a noun to serve as an adjective, or a noun 
or an adjective to serve as a verb, sometimes with 
a very striking effect, as in the lines : 

". . . What I would have spoke 
Was beastly dumb'd by him", 

and: 

"That sleep and feeding may prorogue his honour 

Even till a Lethe* d dulness !" 
and: 

"Eros, 

Wouldst thou be window* d in great Rome, and see 
Thy master thus?" 



ioo SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

There are some striking examples of this bold 
usage of words in Keats. One is in a couplet from 
Endymion which is remarkable on other grounds, 
for it is a piece of very memorable music : 

"Like old Deucalion mountatned o'er the flood, 
Or blind Orion hungry for the morn." 

There is another in Lamia : 

"Or friends or kinsfolk on the cltied earth 
To share our marriage feast?" 

And another in Isabella : 



And for them many a weary hand did swelt 
In torched mines and noisy factories." 



And another in Hyperion : 

"Couches of rugged stone, and slaty ridge 
Stubborn'd with iron." 

Occasionally this kind of thing is done with 
effect by a poet of our own days, as when Coventry 
Patmore writes : 

"Leave to your lawful Master's itching hands 
Your unking *d lands." 

But only a master of language can do this well, 
and it is better not attempted by anyone else. It 
is a desperate throw in the game, which nothing 



MEANING AND SELECTION 101 

but success can justify. With Francis Thompson 
it became a mannerism, and this, like the extremity 
of his Latinism, goes to show how he strained 
after effects of greatness that he could only rarely 
accomplish. Consider how effective are most of 
the examples from Shakespeare and Keats, and 
how tortured and unnatural are the numerous 
instances in Thompson, as where he writes: 



and: 



"Unbanner your bright locks, advance 
Girl, their gilded puissance", 



Is it not thou that dost the tulip drape, 
And huest the daffodilly?" 



and: 

"Ere Autumn's kiss sultry her cheek with flame,' 

and: 

"I, the flesh-girt Paradises, 

Gardenered by the Adam new." 



Sometimes words are used in this masterful 
fashion with a deliberate effect of the comic, as 
when Dr. Johnson reproached Langton for 
spending his time with "a set of wretched 
unidea'd girls'*, and probably it is only so that 
they can pass muster in prose. For prose wears a 



102 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

more sober livery than poetry, and the audacities 
that may be carried off in verse are only tolerable 
in prose as a quaint and humorous affectation, 
with much the same effect as vivid slang. If 
Shakespeare had made Falstaff say to Pistol, 
"I have grated upon my good friends for three 
reprieves for you and your coach-fellow Nym, or 
else you had looked through the grate like a pair 
of monkeys", there would have been nothing in 
the words to stick in the memory; when he makes 
him say, "like a geminy of baboons*', we remember 
the vivid quaintness of the phrase, and we feel that 
it is consonant with the wild humour of the fat 
knight. But such a phrase could hardly find a 
place in serious prose. It is deliberately and 
delightfully grotesque. The same passport serves 
sometimes for the entry of such words and such 
constructions into the lighter kind of verse that 
is to say, their quality of the quaint and humorous, 
as when Coleridge describes the drowsy cry of the 
watchmen: "Those hoarse unfeather'd night- 
ingales of Time!", and when Tennyson writes of 
the armorial crest of the squire: "Whose blazing 
wyvern weathercock d the spire." 

It illustrates the complexity of the issue that 
some of the worst things ever written have been 
due to an avoidance of the ordinary word, and 



MEANING AND SELECTION 103 

the mistaken choice of what the writer thought 
was a more dignified word or phrase. Our 
eighteenth-century poets were so much afraid of 
the plain word, which seemed to them unworthy 
of the dignity of verse, that they achieved some 
wonderful examples of unconscious humour in 
the avoidance of it. Young writes, in the Night 
Thoughts i 

"All the distinctions of this little life 
Are quite cutaneous", 

i.e. skin-deep. 

Armstrong writes, in Diet: 

"Not that which Cestria sends, tenacious paste 
Of solid milk", 

i.e. Cheshire cheese. 

The greater poets of the period are almost as 
bad. Thomson describes the cragsman in the 
Hebrides who: 

"to the rocks 
Dire-clinging, gathers his ovarious food" , 

i.e. eggs. (That heartless reduction of "ovarious 
food" to mere eggs reminds me irresistibly of 
Barrie's grocer, who advertised "Eggs, new laid, 
is. 3d.; eggs, fresh, is. 2d.; eggs, warranted, is.; 
eggs, lod.") 



104 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 
Pope writes, in The Rape of the Lock: 

"The peer now spreads the glittering forf ex wide 
T'inclose the lock ; now joins it, to divide" j 

i.e. the scissors. In the next line the scissors 
become "the fatal engine", and a few lines farther 
on "the unresisted steel". But it is only fair to 
add that there is some excuse for Pope here, 
because the whole poem is professedly a piece of 
studied artificiality. Cowper writes : 

"Such is the clamour of rooks, daws, and kites, 
The explosion of the levelled tube excites", 

i.e. a gun. It is Cowper also who has the amazing 
lines: 

"The stable yields a stercoraceous heap 
Impregnated with quick fermenting salts", 

i.e. a dung-hill. Another eighteenth-century writer, 
Grainger, was evidently rather ill at ease on this 
point of husbandry, for in The Sugar Cane, while 
he boldly speaks of dung-hills, he prefaces the 
reference with a solemn question : 

"Of composts shall the muse descend to sing 
Nor soil her heavenly plumes? The sacred muse 
Nought sordid deems, but what is base." 



MEANING AND SELECTION 105 
It is Grainger again who has the lines : 

"Nor with less waste the whisker* d vermin-race 
A countless clan, despoil the lowland cane", 

i.e. rats. 

Boswell says Langton told him that when 
Grainger read the poem in manuscript at Sir 
Joshua Reynolds's, the assembled wits burst 
into a laugh when the poet read the passage as 
he had originally written it, beginning: "Now, 
Muse, let's sing of ratsl" Boswell had sense 
enough to add (though he expressed the criticism 
in a characteristically pompous way) that in the 
poem as published the rats are "periphrastically 
exhibited in a still more ludicrous manner". 

Even Wordsworth can approach the same 
pitch of absurdity, as when he writes: 

"Mark him of shoulders curved, of stature tall, 
Black hair and vivid eye and meagre cheek, 
His prominent feature like an eagle's beak", 

i.e. his nose. 

But these absurdities raise some real issues. 
Can the Muse sing of rats and of noses ? I doubt 
it; except where the reference is humorous, as in 
a piece of grotesquerie like Browning's Pied 
Piper. Are there not some facts and some words 



io6 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

that do not lend themselves to poetic treatment ? 
In Tennyson's first draft of The Miller's "Daughter 
he wrote : 

"A water-rat from off the bank 
Plunged in the stream . . " 

but he altered it later to : 

"Then leapt a trout. In lazy mood 
I watched the little circles die; 
They passed into the level flood, 
And there a vision caught my eye." 

The leaping trout is surely a more poetic vision 
than a plunging water-rat. 

Someone with an enquiring mind once went 
through a collection of English love poems, and 
counted the references to the different features. 
It appeared that the eyes were mentioned eighty- 
four times, the lips twenty-eight, the brow 
seventeen, and the nose only once! It is not 
recorded what this solitary reference was ; probably 
it was Tennyson's : 

"And lightly was her slender nose 
Tip-tilted like the petal of a flower." 

Mr. G. K. Chesterton has written a poem on 
noses and noselessness, but that again is a 
burlesque. Rats and noses are unpoetic themes, 



MEANING AND SELECTION 107 

and the serious poet had better avoid them, but 
if he will not leave these things alone he should 
not try to mask what is unpoetic by mere pom- 
posity of language : if he will name them at all he 
should name them plainly. 

But there is sometimes a difference between a 
plain word and an ordinary word, as there is 
always a difference between a stately phrase and 
an affected phrase. The distinction really points 
to an important issue. For the essential difference 
between verse and prose, apart from the externals 
of metre and rhyme, is that verse is a more 
exalted sort of utterance, and is therefore dedicated 
to the expression of the more imaginative kind 
of thought, and the more inspired kind of feeling. 
You can say in verse : 



Come down, O maid, from yonder mountain height, 
What pleasure lives in height ? the shepherd sang." 



But you will hardly choose verse as the medium 
if you want to say, " 'Come downstairs; what's 
the good of staying up there?* her husband 
remarked. " As Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch has 
said, with real discernment, while "the capital 
difficulty of verse consists in saying ordinary 
things, the capital difficulty of prose consists in 
saying extraordinary things; with verse, keyed 



io8 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

for high moments, the trouble is to manage the 
intervals". This is illustrated by many comic 
examples, like those I have quoted, in which our 
poets come to grief over the mention of ordinary 
matters of everyday life. Many others might be 
given. Tea, for example, is a harmless beverage, 
except when drunk in such quantities as once 
alarmed the elder Mr. Weller, but it has a 
noxious effect on the poets. Pope, for once, is 
blameless: he calls it tea: 

"Here thou, great Anna ! whom three realms obey, 
Dost sometimes counsel take and sometimes tea", 

(and, by the way, the rhyme reminds us of the 
older pronunciation which has survived in un- 
cultured speech, "a cup of fay"). But with 
Cowper it is disguised either as: 

"the fragrant lymph 
Which neatly she prepares", 



or as: 



"the cups 
That cheer, but not inebriate." 

And Wordsworth sins as badly as anyone with : 

"And sitting on the grass partook 
The fragrant beverage drawn from China's herb." 



MEANING AND SELECTION 109 

Such examples illustrate the dangers of poetic 
diction, and of the dignified paraphrase which is 
akin to it. It is better to use a plain word at the 
risk of being commonplace than to use an 
affected paraphrase with the certainty of being 
pompous. But a poet ought to select his subjects 
and his words so as to avoid either fault. His 
themes should be worthy of high language, and 
his language should be apt for high themes. 

As one singularly apt word may make the 
greatness of a particular passage, either in prose 
or in poetry, so one word that is unfit or mis- 
placed may imperil the whole effect. Stevenson 
wrote to Barrie, when he had read A Window in 
Thrums^ a letter of high appreciation, in which 
he said, among other things, "Tibbie Birse in 
the burial is great, but I think it was the 
journalist that got in the word 'official'." Tibbie 
says in the novel, "Though I should be struck 
deid this nicht, I wasna sae muckle as speired to 
the layin' oot. There was Mysy Cruickshanks 
there, an* Kitty Wobster 'at was nae friends to 
the corpse to speak o', but Marget passed by me, 
me 'at is her ain flesh an' blood, though it mayna 
be for the like o' me to say it. It's gospel truth, 
Jess, I tell ye, when I say 'at, for all I ken officially, 
as ye micht say, Pete Lownie may be weel and 



no SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

hearty this day." Stevenson was right: the 
peasant woman might have said, "for all I ken 
'at she's telled me", or something like that, but 
she would surely never have said, "for all I ken 
officially". Here, of course, it is not a question of 
a word that is specially subtle or suggestive or 
appropriate in itself, but merely of a word that 
is or is not consistent with the natural speech of 
the person portrayed. But the issue may be said 
to be generally one of consistency, in some 
sense. The wrong word is wrong because it does 
not accord with the sense, or the sound, or the 
verbal dignity, or the emotional pitch, of the rest 
of the passage. So one unfortunate word can 
sometimes ruin the whole effect of a noble para- 
graph or a fine verse. In one of the eclogues of 
John Davidson that greatly underestimated poet 
there is a delicate vignette of winter: 

"In holly hedges starving birds 

Silently mourn the setting year. 
Upright, like silver-plated swords 
The flags stand in the frozen mere." 

Now does not everyone feel that these lines are 
spoilt by the one word "silver-plated" ? It recalls 
silversmiths' shops, tea-pots, tea-spoons, sugar- 
basins, and electro-plate generally. How much 



MEANING AND SELECTION in 

better if the poet had written "silver swords" 
" Upright, unmoved, like silver swords", or 
something of that sort ? 

So we feel that a famous poem of Words- 
worth's is spoiled for a moment when he writes: 

"And now I see with eye serene 
The very pulse of the machine ; 
A being breathing thoughtful breath, 
A traveller between life and death." 

He writes of one who is a phantom of delight, a 
lovely apparition, a dancing shape, and then we 
are brought up with ajar upon "the machine" 
with its suggestion of a mangle, a locomotive, a 
factory, and all the rest of it. Why did he not say 
"the very secret of her life", or "the very pulses 
of her soul", or something like that? Probably, 
if the truth must be told, because he wanted a 
rhyme for serene and could not think of 
another.(i3) One other point may be noted here. 
The word machine is a misfit in Wordsworth's 
beautiful verses mainly because of its associations, 
but probably also in part on account of its 
linguistic origin. The simpler word would have 
been better, and the simpler word would almost 
certainly have been a Saxon word. 



IV 
DERIVATION AND HISTORY 

As we have already seen, there are three distinct 
elements in the English language as it exists 
to-day the native Saxon, the words borrowed 
directly from Latin, and the words of Latin origin 
which have come to us through French. Un- 
questionably this mixture has produced a genuine 
enrichment of the language, and that in more 
ways than one. Sir Philip Sidney wrote, in the 
Apology for Poetry, "I know some will say it is 
a mingled language. And why not so much the 
better, taking the best of both the other ? Another 
will say that it wanteth grammer. Nay, truly, 
it hath that praise that it wanteth not grammer; 
for grammer it might have, but it needes it not; 
being so easie of itselfe, and so voyd of those 
cumbersome differences of cases, genders, moodes, 
and tenses, which I think was a peece of the Tower 
of Babilon's curse that a man should be put to 
schoole to learne his mother tongue. But for the 
uttering sweetly and properly the conceits of the 
minde, which is the end of speech, that hath it 
equally with any other tongue in the world."/^Vs 



DERIVATION AND HISTORY 113 

these words suggest, the mixture of linguistic 
elements has not only enlarged the vocabulary of 
English, but has also simplified the grammar of 
it J When Saxons and Danes and Normans all 
settled successively in the same land, and were 
gradually welded into one people, speaking one 
language, the grammatical superfluities were 
largely got rid of in the process of fusion. In Old 
English the noun had six forms, the nominative, 
genitive, and dative, in the singular and in the 
plural. To-day the noun has only two forms, the 
singular and the plural, the same form as the 
plural (though not historically the same) being 
used for the possessive, with an apostrophe to 
distinguish it. In Old English the three genders 
were arbitrary, as in most languages. To-day 
gender in English is natural, the masculine form 
being used only of a man, the feminine only of 
a woman, the neuter only of a thing (except, 
of course, in a personification, which is not really 
an exception at all). It is only necessary to think 
of the cases and the genders in other languages to 
realise how greatly all this is to the advantage of 
English. 

Another advantage in the grammatical structure 
of English has come from the development of 
auxiliary verbs like be, do, have, shall, and will. 

H 



ii4 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

We can say, for example, "I am writing", and 
"I was writing", and "I have been writing", and 
"I had been writing", where older English could 
only say "I write" and "I wrote", and obviously 
a much wider range of significance is due to this 
extended construction. Then in Old English 
"I do desire" and "I did desire" were simply 
alternative forms of the present and past tenses, 
equivalent to "I desire" and "I desired". Now 
the auxiliary has acquired a deliberative and 
emphatic quality, so that "I do desire" and "I 
did desire" imply "I do really desire", "I did 
specially desire", or something of that sort. 
There is an implicit protest of earnestness, often 
with the suggestion that this has been doubted 
or denied. The use of shall and will is particularly 
complex and is supposed to be specially difficult 
for those born north of the Tweed. When Angus 
is being given an appointment on a London 
paper, in Barrie's amusing novel When a Man's 
Single , the editor asks, "By the way, you are 
Scotch, I think?" "Yes", said Rob. "I only asked", 
the editor explained, "because of the shall and 
will difficulty. Have you got over that yet?" 
"No", said Rob, sadly, "and never will." "I shall 
warn the proof readers to be on the alert", the 
editor said, laughing; and Barrie adds that Angus 



DERIVATION AND HISTORY 115 

did not see what he was laughing at. The correct 
usage here is easy enough. Shall expresses a simple 
future. Will expresses an Intention as well. 
<r Fshalt never do it" merely states that this is to 
be my fate. "I will never do it" states that this is 
not merely to be my fate, but is also my purpose. 
But there are a great many other delicate dis- 
tinctions in the use of shall and will, which come 
naturally to an Englishman, but are difficult 
enough to explain and rationalise. There cannot 
be any doubt, however, that they give a great 
many subtleties of expression to the language. 

But even more important is the double strain 
in Our vocabulary. Think of a few familiar words 
like father ', mother ', life, love. These are in Latin, 
pater, mater, vita, amor\ in French, fere, mire, vie, 
amour; in German, Vater, Mutter, Leben, Liebe. 
The German words are plainly of the same 
origin as our English ones ; the French words are 
as plainly derived from the Latin. But we have 
also in English the words : paternal, maternal, vital, 
amorous, which are from me Latin^This means 
a choice ^Fsynonyms, so that we may say either 
fatherly or paternal, motherly or maternal, living 
or vital, loving or amorous ; it also means that 
there is a difference of quality between the words 
which largely governs the use of them. Roughly, 



n6 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

they mean the same, but there are subtle nuances 
which make themselves felt in any delicate use 
of language. There can be no doubt at all that 
this mixture of Teutonic and Latin elements in 
the language is a very considerable factor in 
English style. The Norman Conquest brought 
in a number of Norman-French words, and (what 
is much more important) it was the entry of these 
which predisposed the language to receive the 
innumerable words which were afterwards intro- 
duced from both French and Latin. The actual 
grammatical structure of a sentence in modern 
English often rests almost wholly on the Saxon 
verbs and prepositions and conjunctions, but 
many of the other words in the sentence, especially 
those which convey abstract ideas, and those 
which contribute the rhetorical and resonant 
element, are ultimately from the Latin. The reasons 
for this are plain. As the language of an old 
civilisation, which had long been in use by 
philosophers and poets, Latin had developed a 
wealth of abstract words. English left to itself 
would doubtless have evolved such terms out of 
its own resources, as German has done. There is 
an indication of the way that this might have come 
to pass in Wyclif, who uses againstand for "resist", 
againrising for "resurrection", forthinking for 



DERIVATION AND HISTORY 117 

"repentance**, unworship for "dishonour**, and 
kindly for "natural** (as in the Book of Common 
Prayer, where "the kindly fruits of the earth** 
means "the natural fruits of the earth*'). William 
Barnes, the Dorsetshire poet, seriously urged that 
a purely Saxon vocabulary should be restored, 
and suggested (among others less desirable) the 
words folkdom for "democracy**, redecraft for 
"logic**, manqualm for "epidemic**, wirespell for 
"telegram**, wortlore for "botany**, and the per- 
fectly delightful fireghost for "electricity**. But 
before English had a literature, in any large sense 
of the word, the influx of words from French and 
Latin had begun; scholars especially went on 
borrowing the Latin words with which they were 
so familiar, and these were adopted into the 
language, largely to represent generalised concep- 
tions. It is very noticeable that many of the words 
borrowed from Latin have a more generic meaning 
than the native words, and therefore it is to the 
Latin element that the language owes much of 
its power to express abstract thought. On the 
other hand, sin&rthe Saxon words are generally 
more specific, it is on these that much of the 
vividness of our speech depends. Religion is Latin, 
but God, soul, sin, forgiveness, heaven, hell, are 
Saxon. Morality is Latin, but right and wrong, 



n8 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

good and evil, truth and falsehood, love and hate, 
are Saxon. Humanity is Latin, but man, woman, 
husband, wife, child, baby, are Saxon. Material is 
Latin, but wood, stone, iron, leather, wool, cloth, 
are Saxon. Colour is Latin, but white, black, blue, 
red, yellow, green, are Saxon. The other point is 
equally obvious. It was the words borrowed from 
the Latin that were "sounding words", as Dryden 
said, fitted for the expression of "magnificence 
and splendour", and a writer who wanted a 
sonorous and stately word naturally chose it from 
the Latin strain. The very nature of the language 
explains why. In Latin there are five consonants 
to four vowels; in English there are six to four. 
But against this has to be set the fact that English 
has more than five monosyllables to two poly- 
syllables. In Latin the proportion of monosyllables 
to polysyllables appears to be about one in fifty. 
The general effect is undoubtedly that Latin is 
much more stately, rigid, and resonant than 
English. A great many of our English mono- 
syllables in constant use are nouns, verbs, and 
prepositions, and it must be remembered that 
the use of the latter, particularly, gives English 
more freedom of movement than Latin has, and 
therefore renders it capable of more variety of 
effect in the grouping of words. 



DERIVATION AND HISTORY 119 

Generally, however, a long word is more 
dignified than a short one. And since letters are, 
"like soldiers, apt to desert and drop off on a 
long march'*, as Seneca said, there is a general 
tendency for words to shorten and so to lose 
dignity. This is true even when the letters remain, 
as a matter of spelling, but are not pronounced. 
"Contemplation", for example, as it was pro- 
nounced down to the seventeenth century 
con-temp-lat-i-on as in Milton: 

"Guiding the fiery-wheeled throne 
The cherub Contemplati6n", 

is a statelier word than our con-temp-la-shun. So 
in Herrick's: 

"A lawn about the shoulders thrown 
Into a fine distracti6n", 

where dis-tract-i-on is a much finer sound than 
our dis-tract-shun, and so in many examples in 
Shakespeare. The loss of dignity increases with 
the process of shortening. It is amusing to remem- 
ber that when the errand-boy says "Yes, *m", 
the one letter is the sole survivor of nine, for mea 
domina has become progressively madame, madam, 
ma'am, J m. In the earlier stages of language the 
exact opposite sometimes happens, and a word 
creates new derivatives by lengthening itself. 



120 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

Thus the single letter e the Latin preposition 
that means from is the root of our word 
"stranger" (e, ex, extra, extraneus, Stranger, 
stranger). But the tendency in latter times is 
always toward shortening and simplifying words, 
as the modern usage is enough to show in words 
like bus, and tram, and train, abbreviated from 
"omnibus-coach", and "tramway-car", and 
"railway-train". 

The mere contrast between a long word and a 
short one, apart from anything else, has its effect 
in every language. It is obvious, for example, in 
the famous phrase of Tacitus, ubi solitudinem 
faciunt, pacem appellunt, and the effect is preserved 
in English, "They made a solitude and called it 
peace" The deliberate opposition of five syllables 
to two in the Latin, and three syllables to one in 
the English, assuredly has a marked bearing on 
the impressiveness of the phrase. Our language 
has probably more scope for this kind of effect 
than most others, because the contrast between 
a long word and a short one in apposition is 
generally provided by the contrast between a 
Latin word and a Saxon one, as in Herrick's 
"The liquefaction of her clothes", and Lovelace's 
"When love with unconfined wings", and Words- 
worth's "An incommunicable sleep." Change to 



DERIVATION AND HISTORY 121 

'the waving of her clothes", "with free wings", 
"an unshared sleep", and a good deal is lost, 
largely because a shorter word is substituted for 
a longer one. There are other details present, as 
we shall presently see, but the mere length of a 
word tells in its association with other words. 

One of the main factors which conditions 
English style, therefore, is the difference between 
the Latinised language that is marked by dignity, 
and the Saxon language that is marked by sim- 
plicity. The difference is broadly that the Latin 
words in our language are usually long words, 
stately in sound, and abstract in significance, 
while the native words are generally short words, 
more simple in sound, and more concrete in 
significance. Some of the finest effects in our 
literature are due to the contrast and combination 
of Latin and Saxon words, with these different 
characteristics. Many examples might be quoted 
to illustrate this. In the Book of Common Prayer 
there are many doubled phrases, of which one 
word is Saxon and the other Latin, like trust and 
confidence > truth and justice , sickness and mortality ', 
and it is noticeable that the noun of Latin origin 
generally comes last, doubtless because it is 
longer and more resounding \ There are also many 
similar phrases where one word is Saxon and the 



122 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

other has come from the Latin through old French, 

like assemble and meet, vanquish and overcome, 

violent and unruly. And there are many others 

where both words are really of Latin origin, but 

one of them has reached us so long ago through 

French, and has been so assimilated, that it looks 

like native English, and the other has come 

directly from the Latin, and retains a Roman 

cast of countenance, like peace and concord, joy and 

felicity, praise and magnify. It is evident that there 

is a difference of quality between these associated 

words, as you feel if you say trust and faith for 

trust and confidence, or, on the other hand, veracity 

%n& justice for truth and justice. Or if in the second 

group you say vanquish and conquer for vanquish 

and overcome, or violent and turbulent instead of 

violent and unruly. Or again, in the third group, 

if you say peace and friendship for peace and 

concord, or joy and gladness for joy and felicity. 

It is not suggested that there is any particular 

loss in some of the substituted phrases, but merely 

that there is a characteristic difference, both in 

sound and suggestiveness. 

Some Latin words have been introduced from 
time to time into the language, and have not 
managed to establish themselves in English 
permanently. Thus Sir Thomas Browne, referring 



DERIVATION AND HISTORY 123 

to an incident in Scripture, says that "to burn 
the bones of the King of Edom for lime seems no 
irrational ferity"; and Dr. Johnson, writing of 
the King of Prussia's tall grenadiers, says that he 
made them marry tall women so "that they might 
propagate procerity". John Bunyan would doubt- 
less have written, for the first phrase, "seems no 
foolish hurt", and for the second, "that they 
might beget giants". But the point to remark at 
the moment is that we all freely use irrational and 
propagate, while it would be a deliberate affecta- 
tion to-day to use ferity and procerity. The Latin 
adjective and verb have established themselves in 
English, while the two Latin nouns have not. 

But restricting ourselves to Latin words which 
are perfectly naturalised in the language, let us 
think of some of these with their Saxon synonyms 
words like burdensome and onerous, feeling and 
sentiment^ fiery and igneous, hide and conceal, 
manly and masculine, -place and locality, shady and 
umbrageous, sin and iniquity, unfriendly and inimical, 
watery and aqueous, womanly and feminine, work 
and occupation. Consider the difference between 
"my burdensome work" and "my onerous occupa- 
tion", between "an unfriendly feeling" and "an 
inimical sentiment", between "this shady place" 
and "this umbrageous locality", between "hiding 



124 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

a sin" and "concealing an iniquity", jurely 
everyone must feel that in each example the 
Saxon woids_jy^e_the more suggestive, emotional 
a*nd poetic. If your mind can possibly harbour a 
toubt about this issue, try a base experiment and 
recite : 



and: 



But I might see young Cupid's fiery shaft 
Quenched in the chaste beams of the aqueous moon", 



An igneous soul which working out its way, 

Fretted the pygmy body to decay 

And o'er informed the tenement of clay", 



and: 



"You have the Pyrrhic dance as yet 

Where is the Pyrrhic phalanx gone ? 
Of two such lessons why forget 

The nobler and the more masculine one ?" 

and: 

"All that remains of her 
Now is pure feminine." 

But this has gone far enough! It is an outrage, 
and we can almost see the ghosts of four English 
poets, like Hamlet's father, "look frowningly". 

Almost the earliest example of Dr. Johnson's 
literary manner occurs in the preface to his 



DERIVATION AND HISTORY 125 

translation of Lobo's Voyage to Abyssinia, where 
he says that "the reader will here find no regions 
cursed with irremediable barrenness or blessed 
with spontaneous fecundity". Take these adjec- 
tives and substitute simpler Saxon equivalents 
hopeless for irremediable, and ready for spontaneous. 
Instead of ten syllables you have four, and instead 
of twelve effective consonants you have five. 
The general effect is the loss of a quality which is, 
at its best, stateliness, and, at its worst, pomposity, 
and a gain in simplicity and ease. But look at the 
nouns the Saxon word barrenness and the Latin 
word fecundity. We happen to have purely Saxon 
words for both these notions ; we can say barrenness 
andfruitfu/ness, but we have also Latin equivalents 
in sterility it is a wonder that Dr. Johnson did 
not use it and fertility, as well as fecundity. 
This again illustrates the fact that we often have 
the choice in English between a Saxon word and 
a Latin word, so that we can make a phrase out 
of Latin words, or out of Saxon words, or out of 
a blend of both. We can say irremediable sterility, 
and spontaneous fertility, or hopeless barrenness and 
ready fruitfulness, or hopeless sterility and ready 
fertility. I am not recommending these phrases 
Heaven forbid that I should recommend some of 
them! I am only illustrating the way that we can 



126 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

ring the changes on Dr. Johnson's phrase and 
the words it suggests. And so in innumerable 
other examples. We can say fraternal affection or 
brotherly love, and we can also say fraternal love or 
brotherly affection. We can say a mortal enemy or a 
deadly foe, and, again, we can say a deadly enemy 
or a mortal foe. 

Some very distinct effects are produced by these 
means. Thus when Burke writes: "to act with 
effect and energy, rather than to loiter out our 
days without blame and without use", the con- 
trast between "effect . . .energy" and "blame . . . 
use" is much more telling than if he had written 
"to act with effect and energy, rather than to 
loiter out our days without censure and without 
utility". When he writes of the Keep of Windsor 
"girt with the double belt of kindred and coeval 
towers", and goes on to say that "Englarfd is safe 
from the levellers of France" as long as "this 
awful structure shall oversee and gvtard the sub- 
jected land", it is much more effective than if he 
had written "kindred and aged towers" and "this 
awful building" and "the yielded land", or if, 
on the other hand, he had written "related and 
coeval towers" and "this reverend structure" and 
"the subjected territory". 

The happy effect produced by the apposition 



DERIVATION AND HISTORY 127 

and contrast between words of Latin origin and 
words of Saxon origin might be illustrated end- 
lessly from the poets. Think of phrases in 
Shakespeare, like "a thing ensky'd and sainted" 
. . . "in the dark backward and abysm of time" . . . 
"th* inconstant moon" . . . "the insane root" . . . 
"the pendent boughs" . . . "the antique world" 
. . . "his loved mansionry" . . . "her weedy 
trophies" . . . "with restless violence" . . . "in 
cold obstruction" . . . "in shallows and in miseries" 
.... "her fair and unpolluted flesh" . . . "the last 
syllable of recorded time" ... "in states unborn 
and accents yet unknown". There are many 
examples of this in all our poets. The quality of 
many phrases in Milton, such as "the grisly 
terror" . . . "his original brightness" . . . "the 
dark opprobrious den" . , . "the dark, unbottomed, 
infinite abyss" . . . "bitter constraint and sad 
occasion dear" ... is largely due to the combina- 
tion of the two elements in our language. 

Ofter^a^jheseexamples show, the delicate 
effect is due to the contrasted quality of a Latin 
ancTa Saxon adjective, or of a Latin adjective and 
a Saxon noun, or of a Saxon adjective and a Latin 
noun. The following phrases are all from Words- 

. - - --..<-. --..- ,. .. _,^_ . _ 3HK __^_ ._,_,..._ _., , . ._-.-.-"--- - - - - -*--.- 



transient sorrows . . . temperate 
will" . . . "uncharter'd freedom" . . . "unfilial 



128 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

fears" . . . "household motions" . . . "worldly 
grandeur" . . . "timely mandate" . . . "strong 
compunction". . . . Now change these into 
"passing sorrows" . . . "calm will" . . . "lawless 
freedom" . . . "unchildlike fears" . . . "domestic 
motions" . , . "mundane grandeur" . . . "oppor- 
tune mandate" . . . "potent compunction", or, the 
other way about, into "transient dolours" . . . 
"temperate volition" . . . "uncharter'd liberty" 
. . . "unfilial terrors" . . . "household movements" 
. . . "worldly greatness" . . . "timely bidding" . . . 
"strong regret". . . . There is no absolute 
superiority, on one side or the other, in most of 
these alternatives "passing" and "calm" are as 
poetical words as "transient" and "temperate", 
and indeed more so; and "potent" and "dolour" 
may be as effectively used in poetry as "strong" 
and "sorrow", if they are used at the right time 
and in the right place. But there cannot be the 
slightest doubt that every one of Wordsworth/s 
phrases that has been quoted gains largely from 
the subtle contrast in quality between the Latin 
adjective and the Saxon noun, or the Saxon 
adjective and the Latin noun, as the case may be. 
The same point might be abundantly illustrated 
from contemporary verse, the best of which owes 
much to this adroit balance between words of 



DERIVATION AND HISTORY 

different length and different origin. Think of 
phrases like "ephemeral tears" . . . "some fugitive 
breath" . . . "the volatile song" . . . "the doomed, 
reluctant leaf" . . . "all things sealed and recon- 
dite" . . . "Earth's imperturbable heart". . . . 
All these are from the verse of that genuine poet, 
Sir William Watson, and they all illustrate the 
effective contrast between the two elements in 
our speech. 

I have suggested that the Latin jword is nearly 
always the more stately and resonant, ancl that^ 
trie Saxon word is nearly always the_rnore_jdyid,.. 
passionate, and poignant. When Coleridge makes 
tHeAncient Mariner say that he was 

"Like one that on a lonesome road 
Doth walk in fear and dread, 
And having once turned round walks on, 
And turns no more his headj 
Because he knows a frightful fiend 
Doth close behind him tread", 

the sense of dread is conveyed by the simple 
Saxon words, as one may easily see by making 
a pompous paraphrase of the last two lines: 
"Because he is conscious of the proximity of a 
terrific demon." Why is a terrific demon less awful 
than a frightful fiend? Because the former phrase 



130 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

is more artificial, and therefore the thing seems 
less real. An English novelist of the baser sort 
might write, if he were describing an imaginary 
experience: "He saw an apparition, and it re- 
duced him to a condition of mortal terror" he 
might write that (for men are capable of almost 
anything when they get a pen into their hands), 
but if he had really seen the thing himself he 
would say: "I've seen a ghost, and I'm frightened 
to death !" That is to say, the simpler native 
speech is more natural than the Latinised literary 
idiom whenever the feelings are deeply stirred. 
The more poignant passages in our literature all 
depend mainly upon Saxon 'words. So it is (to 
think of Wordsworth only) in simple and moving 
lines like: 



'Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, 
But to be young was very Heaven !" 



and: 



The silence that is in the starry sky, 
The sleep that is among the lonely hills", 



and: 



"To me the meanest flower that blows can give 
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears", 



DERIVATION AND HISTORY 131 

and: 

"She dwelt among the untrodden ways 

Beside the springs of Dove ; 
A maid whom there were none to praise, 
And very few to love." 

Many years ago, when Francis Thompson was 
beginning to be known, some wicked person 
wrote (in the Saturday Review, I think) a parody 
of this poem in an exaggeration of Thompson's 
manner. The first verse was, if I remember it 
aright : 

"By fonts of Dove, ways incalcable, 

Did habitate 

A maiden largely inamable 
And illaudate !" 

It is a caricature, of course, but it is enough to 
illustrate the point. The natural and simple 
feeling has all gone, and is replaced by an absurd 
imitation of stateliness, because most of the 
Saxon words have gone, and Latin words have 
taken their place. 

There is also a marked difference between the 
words which we have borrowed from the French 
(though these derive ultimately from the Latin), 
and the words borrowed directly from Latin. 
Nearly always differences of meaning have been 
developed; but there are also differences of quality 



it 
ii 



132 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

and sound to be considered. This is illustrated 
by a very interesting group of borrowed words 
where two forms exist in English. Thus from 
captivus we have "captive" and "caitiff"; from 
factio, "faction" and "fashion"; from factum, 
fact" and "feat"; from legalis, "legal" and 
loyal"; from potto, "potion" and "poison"; from 
persecutes, "persecute" and "pursue" ; from quietus, 
"quiet "and "coy" ; from redemptio, "redemption" 
and "ransom"; from regalis, "regal" and "royal", 
from traditio, "tradition" and "treason"; from 
zelosus, "zealous" and "jealous". Now in almost 
every case we feel that the former word is the 
more rigid and formal, and the latter word the 
more poetical and romantic. Compare "a legal 
fact" and "a loyal feat"; "a quiet faction" and 
"a coy fashion"; "a regal redemption" and 
"a royal ransom"; "a zealous captive" and "a 
jealous caitiff". I am not forgetting the differences 
of meaning, but surely it is plain that the first 
phrase in each example is more stiff and stately, 
and the second phrase more pliable and graceful. 
This is largely due, it will be noted, to the way 
that the words which have come to us through 
old French have shed their consonants and mixed 
their vowels. There is at least one exception to 
the rule that the word directly from the Latin is 



DERIVATION AND HISTORY 133 

less poetical, and the reason for this is interesting. 
Potion is the Latin potio; poison is the same word 
through the old French. Now potion is the more 
poetic word. Why? Because poison has been 
adopted into general use in both a technical way 
and a familiar way for example, we speak of 
"alkaloid poisons", and of "rat poison'*. Potion 
is the rarer word, and therefore the more stately 
word; and Keats's line: "It came like a fierce 
potion, drunk by chance", would lose something 
in dignity if you substituted the word "poison", 
though it is, as a sound, the finer word. 

The borrowing of words from the French has 
gone on from the Norman Conquest to the 
present day. Chauffeur, chassis, and garage have 
come in during the last thirty years, in connection 
with the motor industry. Liaison and camouflage 
came in during the years of the War. Words like 
these date themselves, but many French words 
absorbed during the last two centuries, or even 
during the last century, have been so thoroughly 
assimilated that we hardly think of them as 
French. There is a famous example in Pope 
where the rhyme shows that the word had been 
borrowed recently: 

"Dreading e'en fools, by flatterers besieged. 
And so obliging that he ne'er obliged" 



134 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

Obviously the word was of late introduction and 
kept its foreign pronunciation. Pope said obleeged, 
and indeed old-fashioned people said that until 
within living memory. But who thinks of oblige 
to-day as a French word ? 

Such processes of adoption and adaptation are 
always going on, and we do not realise how 
recently some words have entered English, or 
have been promoted from slang into the literary 
language, until our attention is called to the fact, 
and it is dated, by some contemporary protest. 
Thus Swift lamented, only two hundred years 
ago, in the Tatkr (No. 230), that the war had 
introduced words like ambassadors, battalions, 
communications, operations, preliminaries, specula- 
tions, and said that these words would not be 
able to survive many more campaigns. He also 
complained of banter, bully, mob, and sham, as 
undignified words in a sermon. All these words 
are familiar enough to-day, and the slangy 
character of the last group is almost lost. "A 
bantering criticism", "a mere bully ", "a furious 
mob*', "a literary sharn", would hardly strike 
anyone to-day as specially undignified phrases, 
and certainly not as slang. Writing as late as 1851, 
Archbishop Trench suggested that there were no 
expct equivalents in English for badinage, coterie, 



DERIVATION AND HISTORY 135 

malice, persiflage, ruse, and some other French 
words. It is very doubtful whether the ordinary 
reader to-day, encountering these words in a 
newspaper or a novel, would think of any of them 
as obviously foreign. He would realise that they 
are French if this were pointed out to him, but 
it is a question whether he would otherwise, and 
it is pretty certain that if left to himself he would 
never feel that "malice** and "ruse** were French 
words. 



V 

POSITION AND EMPHASIS 

BUT whatever the source or sound or significance 
of a word may be, and however these condition 
each other, the word never stands by itself, and 
therefore the position of it in the sentence is a 
matter of importance. The particular word is 
one of a group of words, and the special place 
that it holds in the group seriously affects its 
prominence and value. Now the strategic positions 
in the sentence are naturally the first and the last. 
Ben Jonson shrewdly remarked, in Discoveries, 
that "our composition must be more accurate in 
the beginning and end than in the midst; for 
through the midst the stream bears us". That is 
certainly true; there is a special importance about 
the beginning and the end of a sentence or a 
paragraph. The first note in a piece of music 
strikes our attention because it is the first; 
the last note lingers in our ears because it is the 
last. It is remarkable how much many strik- 
ing passages in literature really owe, when 
we examine them closely, to a memorable open- 
ing, or an arresting close, however splendid 



POSITION AND EMPHASIS 137 

may be the thoughts and words that lie between. 
Everyone will recognise that there is a special 
importance about the beginning of a book. For 
one thing it is well to rouse the reader's interest 
at once, according to the Horatian canon, by a 
sudden plunge into the subject. I have been 
amazed to find how many young people in our 
days are shy of Scott, and I believe it is largely 
because of his long introductions. Ivanhoe is 
probably read a good deal more by modern youth 
than most of the novels, but it would have stood 
a still better chance if it had begun: " 'The curse 
of Saint Withold upon these infernal porkers P 
said Gurth the swineherd", instead of beginning 
with a few pages of disquisition and description. 
The modern writer has generally learned this 
lesson. Mr. G. Bernard Shaw's play Saint Joan 
starts with an exclamation by Robert de Baudr-i- 
court: "No eggs! No eggs! Thousand thunders, 
man, what do you mean by no eggs J!! Here is a 
qu1unFlimr\inexpected beginning, which arrests 
our attention at once. In such examples as these, 
however, it is a matter of the general design of 
the book or the play rather than a matter of 
style that is to say, it is not a question of the 
special arrangement of words in relation to each 
other, but a question as to whether a particular 



138 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

block of words should be placed at the beginning 
or farther on. But the choice of the particular 
word that shall come first in a sentence is a detail 
that does matter in style, and that matters a 
good deal. 

/Now an important word, or a word that may 
become important because it is capable of bearing 
a heavy emphasis, does not naturally come at the 
beginning of a sentence unless it is either an 
apostrophe or an imperative. In these instances 
it does l)ear a strong stress, and therefore makes 
a good beginning, like "Lord, Thou hast been 
our dwelling-place in all generations!" and "Lift 
up your heads, O ye gates!" Where neither of 
those forms is appropriate, or perhaps possibj 
a similar effect is sometimes brought about 
inversion ; an emphatic word that would naturally 
stand in the middle of the sentence is brought to 
the beginning, where it becomes still more 
emphatic. This is not a mere writer's trick. There 
is a psychological reason for it, as for most of 
these things. When the man in the street is 
expressing his low opinion of some acquaintance 
he probably will not say "Well, I don't think 
much of him, for my part", but rather, "Him? 
Well, for my part I don't think much of him'' 
This brings the emphasis at both the beginning 




POSITION AND EMPHASIS 139 

and the end on the pronoun that designates the 
despised person. 

Our poets do the_same thing when they invert 
the natural order of words in order to gain this 
inifTaT^nd"Imal emphasis. "Home they brought 
er warrior dead" Tsrnuch more solemn and 
memorable than "They brought home her dead 
warrior." Why? Because at the beginning and at 
the end of the sentence, which have a natural 
prominence as the beginning and the end, there 
is an important word. The whole stress of meaning 
here is on the fact that the warrior was dead, 
and that they brought him home. The one fact 
is emphasised because it meets you at the very 
thinning of the sentence and of the line; the 
otHer because it meets you at the very end. In 
this particular example (and often in poetry) 
there is also the detail that the first and last 
syllables are accented as a part of the very structure 
of the verse. 

We read in the Apostle's speech in Acts ii. 23: 
"Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel 
and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by 
wicked hands have crucified and slain." (This 
exactly reflects the order in the original Greek, 
by the way, where TOVTOV stands at the beginning 
of the clause.) The order of the words brings a 



SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

good deal more emphasis on the pronoun than 
if it had been, "Ye have taken Him, being 
delivered by the determinate counsel and fore- 
knowledge of God" . . . When Satan says in 
Paradise Lost: 

"Me though just right, and the fixed laws of Heaven, 
Did first create your leader next, free choice, 
With what besides in council or in fight 
Hath been achieved of merit . . ." 

the pronoun at the beginning of the line has 
much more stress and significance than if it had 
come in the middle of a line : 

"Although just right and the fixed laws of Heaven, 
Made me your leader . . ." 

Me stands in the forefront, and also carries a 
special emphasis, because the regular accent on 
the second syllable of the line is thrown back 
upon it; for the line cannot be read: "Me th6ugh 
just right and the* fixed laws 6f Heaven", but 
must necessarily be read: "M6 though just right 
and the fixed laws 6f Heaven." 

This verbal inversion occurs with effect manv 

r 

times in stately prose as well as in poetry. "He is 
blessed whose transgression is forgiven", or "He 
whose transgression is forgiven is blessed" would 
be the ordinary arrangement of the sentence, but 



POSITION AND EMPHASIS 141 

"Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven" 
is a much more emphatic way of saying it. "The 
Lord is great and highly to be praised" is a 
good deal less impressive than "Great is the 
Lord, and highly to be praised". There are many 
other examples in the Authorised Version of the 
Bible where an inversion like, "Not unto us, 
O Lord, not unto us, but unto Thy name give 
glory", or "Out of the depths have I cried unto 
Thee, O Lord", makes a magnificent beginning 
for a sentence. 

The same effect is accentuated when a word 
which carries a good deal of emphasis as an 
imperative is made to recur at the beginning of 
successive verses, like the Ask me no more of 
Carew's lovely lyric: "Ask me no more where 
Jove bestows" . . . "Ask me no more whither do 
stray" . . . "Ask me no more whither doth haste" 
. . . "Ask me no more if east or west" . . . and 
the Forget not yet in Wyat's poem: "Forget not 
yet the tried intent" . . . "Forget not yet when 
first began" . . . "Forget not yet the great assays" 
. . . "Forget not! O forget not this" . . . "Forget 
not then thine own approved" . . . and the repeated 
Follow! in Campion's "Follow thy fair sun, un- 
happy shadow 1" . , . "Follow her whose light 
thy light depriveth" . . . "Follow those pure 



142 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 



beams, whose beauty burneth" . . . "Follow her 
while yet her glory shineth" . . . "Follow still, 
since so thy fates ordained". . . . If you doubt the 
importance of the word's position in these 
examples, try a distressing experiment and read, 
"You shall not ask where Jove bestows*' . . . 
"Do not forget the tried intent" . . . "Thy fair 
sun follow, O unhappy shade!". . . 

A similar effect of emphasis is achieved and 
even more obviously, when a word is immediately 
repeated in the same line, as in Tennyson's 



'Break, break, break, 

On thy cold grey stones, O sea !' 



It is perhaps worth remarking that the intended 
monotony of repetitions like these is saved from 
being mere monotony by an instinctive modula- 
tion of emphasis. Probably everyone reads Tenny- 
son's apostrophe thus: 

"BREAK, break^ break, 
On thy cold gray stones, O sea !" 

So it is said that Sheridan read Dryden's lines : 



"NONE but the 
None BUT the brave, 
None but the BRAVE deserve the fair !" 

In one of Donne's sermons there is a noble 



POSITION AND EMPHASIS 143 

passage which ends impressively with a repetition 
of the same thought in four similar words. 
"When it comes to this height, that the fever is 
not in the humours, but in the spirits, that mine 
enemy is not an imaginary enemy, fortune, nor 
a transitory enemy, malice in great persons, but 
a real, and an irresistible, and an inexorable, and 
an everlasting enemy, the Lord of Hosts Himself, 
the Almighty God Himself the Almighty God 
Himself only knows the weight of this affliction, 
and except He put in that pondus gloriae^ that 
exceeding weight of an eternal glory, with His 
own hand, into the other scale, we are weighed 
down, we are swallowed up, irreparably, irre- 
vocably, irrecoverably, irremediably/* 

Sometimes an inversion of the usual order of 
the words, which we have seen used to make 
some striking beginnings, is used to make an 
impressive end. So when we read that the Apostle 
Peter said to the lame man: "Silver and gold have 
I none", the effect is more summary and emphatic 
than if the words had been "I have no silver and 
gold", partly because the negative word is 
brought to the end of the sentence, and partly 
because the consonantal ending of none (as it is 
pronounced) is a more final sound than the 
vowel ending of no. 



144 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

I may add that the poets sometimes pervert 
the natural order of words merely for the sake 
of finding a rhyme, which is nearly always 
indefensible. So Shelley wrote: 

"But from these create he can 
Forms more real than living man", 

where "create he can" for "he can create'* is an 
impossibly awkward construction. Sometimes, 
again, an undesirable order of words exists because 
the poet is determined at all costs to get a par- 
ticular phrase into the line. Francis Thompson 
was evidently resolved to use the phrase "the 
cincture of God" when he wrote: 

"Its keys are at the cincture hung of God 
Its gates are trepidant to His nod", 

where "at the cincture" interposed between the 
compounded verb "are-hung" is an order of 
words that one would have thought intolerable 
to a poet's ear. Sometimes a clumsy order of 
words is found without there being even the 
excuse of a desired rhyme or phrase in prospect. 
Wordsworth has the lines in one of his greatest 
poems : 

"I deferred 

The task, in smoother walks to stray; 

But thee I now would serve more strictly, if I may", 



POSITION AND EMPHASIS 145 

where the natural order of the words is violated 
to little or no purpose. Why did he not write: 
"But I would serve thee now more strictly, if I 
may" ? The only possible defence of Wordsworth's 
arrangement of the words would be that it brings 
the accent on "thee", but the awkward order is 
not worth while for the sake of that effect. Some- 
body once said that Plato's words seem to have 
grown into their places, and the perfect order of 
words, whether in prose or in poetry, is always 
one which seems natural and inevitable. 

A word that does not in itself possess any 
striking sound, or any suggestion of finality, 
may make an impressive finish because it carries 
a special weight of emphasis in its application, 
as in the last line of the poem by Drummond of 
Hawthornden : 

"Here is the pleasant place 
And nothing wanting is, save She, alas !" 

and when Donne writes, again, in a memorable 
paragraph upon the passing-bell: "Who bends 
not his ear to any bell, which upon occasion 
rings? but who can remove it from that bell, 
which is passing a piece of himself out of this 
world? No man is an^ island, entire of itself; 
every msiTTs a piece of the continent, a part of 



K 



146 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, 
Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory 
were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or thine 
own, were; any man's death diminishes me, 
because I am involved in mankind; and therefore 
never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls fofthee." 

A proper name, coming at the very end of a 
sentence, often constitutes a noble climax. Here, 
I would suggest, it is not altogether that there 
is a heavy stress on the mere sound, and not 
necessarily that the word has any particular 
sonority, but partly that there is a kind of mental 
pause which is due to the concrete significance of 
the name. The name of a place or a person presents 
a definite image at which our thought halts for 
a moment; there is a picture in our mind, and it 
is more final, because it is more defined, than 
the more general thoughts which have gone 
before. 

Thus Sir Philip Sidney wrote, in a famous 
passage: "Certainly, I must confess my own 
barbarousness, I never heard the old song of 
Percy and Douglas that I found not my heart 
moved more than with a trumpet; and yet is it 
sung but by some blind crouder, with no rougher 
voice than rude style; which being so evil ap- 



POSITION AND EMPHASIS 147 

parelled in the dust and cobwebs of that uncivil 
age, what would it work trimmed in the gorgeous 
eloquence of Pindarl" Sir Thomas Browne did 
the same thing. "But all this is nothing in the 
metaphysicks of true belief. To live, indeed, is to 
be again ourselves, which being not only an 
hope but an evidence in noble believers, 'tis all 
one to lie in S. Innocent's Churchyard, as in the 
sands of Egypt, ready to be anything in the 
ecstasy of being ever, and as content with six 
foot as the moles of Adrianus" So, too, Johnson 
wrote, in the noblest paragraph that ever came 
from his pen : "Far from me, and from my friends, 
be such frigid philosophy, as may conduct us, 
indifferent and unmoved, over any ground which 
has been dignified by wisdom, bravery, or virtue. 
The man is little to be envied, whose patriotism 
would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, 
or whose piety would not grow warmer among 
the ruins of lona" Ruskin achieves_a similar 
effect by similar means in one of his noblest 
passages: "Those /er springing flowers and 
ever flowing streams had been dyed by the deep 
colours of human endurance, valour and virtue: 
and the crests of the sable hills that rose against 
the evening sky received a deeper worship, 
because their far shadows fell eastward over the 



148 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

iron wall of Joux, and the four-square keep of 
Granson." 

The same effect is achieved in the same way in 
poetry, and perhaps as often, though it might 
be thought that metre would not so easily admit 
of it. Consider how much of the effect of Marlowe's 
famous lines would be lost if he had written : 



Is this the face that launchM a thousand ships 
And burned Troy's topless towers ?" 



instead of: 

"Is this the face that launch'd a thousand ships 
And burned the topless towers of llium?'\n) 

There are many examples of this. One of Keats's 
finest sonnets ends: 

"and all his men 

Looked at each other with a wild surmise 
Silent, upon a peak in Darien." 

And the last lines of the noble sonnet of Words- 
worth, written on the occasion of Sir Walter 
Scott's last voyage, are : 

VBe true, 

Ye winds of ocean, and the midland sea, 
Wafting your charge to soft Parthenope!" 



POSITION AND EMPHASIS 149 

Byron ends a fine stanza in a similar way : 



Of the three hundred grant but three 
To make a new Thermopylae!" 



And a modern poet,. Francis Thompson, finishes 
a poem with the striking lines: 



"And lo, Christ walking on the water, 
Not of Gennesareth, but Thames!" 

Something of the same effect is produced by 
the use of a quoted phrase at the end of a sentence, 
if it be a proper one for the place. Thus Raleigh 
wrote: "O eloquent, just, and mighty Death I 
whom none could advise thou hast persuaded; 
what none hath dared, thou hast done ; and whom 
all the world hath flattered, thou only hast cast 
out of the world and despised; thou hast drawn 
together all the far-stretched greatness, all the 
pride, cruelty, and ambition of man, and hast 
covered them all with these two narrow words, 
Hie jacet" I do not know whether Wordsworth 
had Raleigh's noble words in mind, but he 
accomplishes the very same effect by the same 
means in Ellen Irwln : 

"By Ellen's side the Bruce is laid; 
And for the stone upon his head, 
May no rude hand deface it, 
And its forlorn Hicjacet!" 



150 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

So the noble paragraph which ends De Quincey's 
great book owes a good deal to the quotation 
which comes at the close of it. "One memorial of 
my former condition still remains: my dreams 
are not yet perfectly calm: the dread swell and 
agitation of the storm have not wholly subsided : 
the legions that encamped in them are drawing 
off, but not all departed; my sleep is still tumul- 
tuous, and, like the gates of Paradise to our first 
parents when looking back from afar, it is still 
(in the tremendous line of Milton) 

With dreadful faces throng'd and fiery arms.' " 

We have seen that the repetition of a word often 
makes a good beginning or a good end for a 
sentence. It naturally lends emphasis to a word 
also when it occurs in the middle of a sentence, 
and makes the thought which the word suggests 
more prominent. Milton writes in Paradise Lost: 

"So spake the Seraph Abdiel, faithful found ; 
Among the faithless faithful only he", 

and in Samson Agonistes: 

"But what more oft, in nations grown corrupt, 
And by their vices brought to servitude, 
Than to love bondage more than liberty 
Bondage with ease than strenuous liberty " 



POSITION AND EMPHASIS 151 

and in Lycidas: 

"For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime, 
Young Lycidas" . . . 

And Shelley: 

"Wherefore hast thou left me now 

Many a day and night? 
Many a weary night and day 
'Tis since thou art fled away." 

And Tennyson: 

"Ca/m on the seas, and silver sleep, 

And waves that sway themselves in rest, 
And dead calm in that noble breast, 
Which heaves but with the heaving deep." 

And Lionel Johnson, in By the Statue of King 
Charles : 

"Gone, too, his Court; and yet, 
The stars his cowrtiers are : 
Stars in their courses set; 
And every wandering star." 

The repetition of a word or a phrase is responsible 
for some fiiie~effectsljt^ prose as well as in verse. 
Matthew Arnold did it~ oftenthait became 



_ 

%. maddening mannerism, but used with restraint 
and in the hands of a master it can produce some 
great results. No one ever did it better, perhaps, 



152 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

than Burke. "The blood of man", he wrote, in a 
noble passage, "should never be shed but to 
redeem the blood of man. It is well shed for our 
family, for our friends, for our God, for our 
country, for our kind. The rest is vanity; the rest is 
crime." (This is doubtless an echo of Genesis ix. 6, 
where there is a like effective repetition, "Whoso 
sheddeth mans blood, by man shall his blood be 
shed. 1 ') Burke said again, in his great speech at 
Bristol: "The worthy Gentleman, who has been 
snatched from us at the moment of the election, 
and in the middle of the contest, whilst his desires 
were as warm, and his hopes as eager as ours, 
has feelingly told us what shadows we are and 
what shadows we pursue." And he wrote in the 
famous passage about Marie Antoinette: "Little 
did I dream when she added titles of veneration 
to those of enthusiastic, distant love, that she 
should ever be obliged to carry the sharp antidote 
against disgrace concealed in that bosom; little 
did I dream that I should have lived to see such 
disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men, 
in a nation of men of honour and of cavaliers. I 
thought ten thousand swords must have leaped 
from their scabbards to avenge even a look 
that threatened her with insult. But the age of 
chivalry is gone." 



POSITION AND EMPHASIS 153 

Dryden has the device of repetition in Alexander's 
Feast, with an effect rather different from that in 
some of the other examples that have been quoted : 

u He sung Darius great and good, 
By too severe a fate 
Fallen, fallen, fallen, fallen, 
Fallen, from his high estate, 
And weltering in his blood." 

Here it seems to me that the suggestion is not 
so much that of emphasis and finality, as if to 
imply that the fallen monarch would never rise 
again (however true that might be), but rather of 
the depth of the fall from his high estate, as if the 
mind's eye sees him fallen, and fallen lower, 
and fallen still lower, until at last he lies upon the 
ground weltering in his blood. Fallen, fallen, 
fallen, fallen, as if he were falling for as long a 
time as it takes us to utter the repeated words. 
That interpretation is confirmed by the detail 
that probably everyone instinctively reads the 
words with a falling emphasis: 

"Fallen, 

fallen, 

fallen, 

fallen, 

Fallen from his high estate, 
And weltering in his blood." 



154 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

Then the position of a word in a sentence is 
inextricably involved with the sound, as well as 
with the emphasis, and while the recurrence of 
the same sounds may create a singular harmony, 
if the recurrence is properly spaced and modulated, 
nothing makes for ugliness more than a mere 
recurrence either an immediate repetition or a 
monotonous repetition of the same sound, where 
there is no need to emphasise it. Many of our 
poets have ruined a line by redoubling a particular 
sound without the intervention of any other 
sound. Thus Cowley has the line "Though so exalted 
she", and Donne, "So though thy circle to thyself 
express." Donne, again, has "Then when thou 
was infused harmony", and Shelley, "As then when 
to outstrip thy skyey speed." Milton has "Then 
when I am thy captive, talk of chains", and he 
has the same jingle again in Comus, and yet he 
criticised Bishop Hall for writing: 

"Teach each hollow grove to sound his love, 
Wearying echo with one changeless word", 

and remarked scornfully: "And so he well might, 
and all his auditory beside, with his teach each!" 
It is not quite so painful when the repetition 
is not immediate, but Goldsmith damaged a 
amous couplet by writing: 



c 

A 



POSITION AND EMPHASIS 155 



*/// fares the land to hastening ills a prey. 
Where wealth accumulates and men decay.' 



Wordsworth found fault with the two participial 
endings in Shakespeare's line: "The singing 
masons building roofs of gold." But Keats thought 
that the repetition of the sound was justified by 
the continued note of the bees. Here are the 
divergent opinions of two great poets on the 
music of a third ! It is enough to warn us to be 
careful. Landor wrote: " 'Tis not my solace that 
'tis his desire", and De Quincey censured him for 
the repeated " 'tis", but did not remark that it 
is made worse by the "his" which follows the 
second " 'tis". Dean Alford wrote in a reply to 
a criticism of something he had said in his work 
on English, "The fact is, the rules of emphasis 
come /', in interruption of the supposed general 
law of position." It would have been easy enough 
to avoid this dreadful iteration of in . . . in . . . 
in . . . by writing, "the fact is, the rules of em- 
phasis enter, and interrupt the supposed general 
law of position". Similar lapses are not uncommon, 
even in great writers. Lord Morley once wrote: 
"After the manner of the author of the immortal 
speeches of Pericles", and even Ruskin could pass 
a sentence which contained the clause, "represen- 



156 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

tative of the mind of the age of literature* '. There 
is no excuse for such a monotonous repetition of 
the same word. The sentences might have run: 
"in the manner we associate with the author of 
the immortal speeches which go by the name of 
Pericles", and "representative of the literary 
mind of the age'*, or something like that. Flaubert 
is said to have had sleepless nights when he found 
that he had inadvertently used de twice in a single 
clause a thing much more difficult to avoid in 
French. He had written une couronne de fleurs 
d*oranger. In English we can often escape a 
repeated "of" by the use of the possessive, or by 
the attributive use of the substantive, for we can 
say "summer's days" or "summer days", if we 
like, and avoid "days of summer" when there is 
another "of", which cannot be escaped, in the 
same clause. 

It is really the same principle which justifies 
what Quintilian called antonomasia, where in 
repeated allusions to a person he is referred to by 
way of some description, and not by his name. 
There is manifestly a good case for using some 
descriptive periphrase when it enables the writer 
to avoid a monotonous repetition of a name. 
The objection which some critics have felt to 
this practice is justified only when the thing is 



POSITION AND EMPHASIS 157 

badly done. There should naturally be some 
appropriateness in the alternative phrase that is 
used. It has been observed that when Milton 
avoids a repetition of the name of Satan, and 
substitutes some descriptive phrase, the phrase 
has always a real connection with the context. 
Thus Satan is "the infernal Serpent" when he 
"deceived the mother of mankind"; he is "the 
Arch-Enemy" after he has "defied the Omnipotent 
to arms"; he is "the apostate Angel" when he is 
vaunting himself as "irreconcilable to our grand 
Foe"; he is "the lost Archangel" when he finds 
himself in "profoundest Hell". Obviously the poet 
is first of all avoiding the repeated mention of 
Satan's name, but every time this is done by the 
use of some phrase that has a real association with 
,the situation described. This illustrates the only 
right principle of the usage. 

Thus to avoid a mere repetition of the name 
"Wordsworth" one is surely justified in calling 
him "the author of the Excursion" > or "the poet of 
nature", or anything like that. But in a good 
writer this will not be mere substitution, and 
irrelevant to the text. That is to say, Wordsworth 
will be referred to as "the author of the Excursion" 
in some connection where it is implied that this 
is not the young and unknown poet of 1798, 



158 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

but the older man and the renowned poet of 
1815 or later. When he is described as "the poet 
of nature" it will be with some reference to the 
place held in his poetry by the sights and sounds 
of the natural world. The dull repetition of a 
name should be avoided, but it ought to be 
avoided by the use of some other words which 
have a real appropriateness in their particular 
place. 

Another consideration which affects the position 
of a word is that the sound of any one word: is 
qualified by the sound of the other words as- 
sociated with it, especially those which come 
immediately before and after it. That very 
delightful writer, Mr. P. G. Wodehouse, whose 
mastery of the idiotic amounts to genius, records 
that when Ambrose Wiffin's hat was returned to 
him after a misadventure in the cinema, the 
commissionaire remarked: "Here you are, sir. 
Here's your rat. A little worse for wear, this sat 
is, I'm afraid, sir. A gentleman happened to step 
on it. You can't step on a nat," he added, sen- 
tentiously, "not without hurting it. That tat is 
not the yat it was.'* This bright bit of conversa- 
tion may serve to remind us that the sound of 
every word is conditioned by the sound of the 
words that accompany it, particularly the final 



POSITION AND EMPHASIS 159 

sound of the preceding word, and the initial 
sound of the following word. The sound of the 
word "hat", even if it is pronounced as it should 
be, really is qualified in the general sound of the 
sentence, by the different words that go before it. 
The principle is instinctively recognised in the 
very structure of some languages. The existence 
of the euphonic v in Greek is an example of it. 
So is the French practice of liaison, and some 
related rules, where a final consonant that is 
usually silent is in some cases pronounced before 
a vowel, and where on the analogy of this (e.g. 
Allait-il?) a euphonic T is inserted where the 
verb does not end with the letter (e.g. // aime, 
but Aime-t-ilT). Even more strange is the euphonic 
L inserted before the indefinite pronoun on when 
a vowel precedes it (e.g. Si Von me voit). This is 
remarkable because it is the insertion of a 

% 

euphonic letter which is really a derelict and 
meaningless word, for it is probably the accusa- 
tive pronoun. Then in English we have the two 
forms of the indefinite article, "a" and "an", the 
use of which was so brilliantly expounded by the 
pedagogue of Dotheboys Hall. "A acorn, a hour," 
said Mr. Squeers, "but when the h is sounded, 
the a only is to be used, as a 'and, a 'art, a 'ighway." 
It is interesting to remember that what Mr. 



160 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

Wodehouse's commissionaire did to the word 
"hat" has really happened in the history of one 
or two English words. Newt derives from the 
old English <?//, evet, or ewt y and an ewt became 
a newt. Exactly the opposite occurred with adder. 
The old English form was nadder^ and a nadder 
became an adder. So with napron the word 
occurs in Spenser where a napron became an 
apron. The two forms "a" and "an" do not stand 
by themselves, however, for the use in poetry and 
in our earlier prose of the alternative forms "my" 
and "mine", "thy" and "thine", illustrates the 
same principle. Sir John Mandeville has "my 
wif" . . . "myn hosbond" . . . "thi schon" . . . 
"thin hosen". ... In the Authorised Version 
there are many examples like "But it was thou, 
a man mine equal, my guide, and mine acquain- 
tance." In the Book of Common Prayer we have 
the successive phrases "Thine unworthy servants 
Thy goodness . . . Thine inestimable love Thy 
mercies . . . Thine agony and bloody sweat Thy 
Cross and Passion." The use of "my" and 
"mine", "thy" and "thine", in Shakespeare 
strikes one as very irregular; the clue appears to 
be that we have forms like "mine host", "mine 
honour", "mine eye", "mine ear", generally, but 
that "my" is preferred where there is a strong 



POSITION AND EMPHASIS 161 

emphasis on the word, because of the antithesis, 
as in: "My ear should catch your voice, my eye 
your eye.'* It has been pointed out that the pause 
which we are forced to make between "my" and 
a following vowel is a kind of emphasis in itself; 
we can say minear for "mine ear", but we have to 
say my-ear for "my ear". In all the earlier examples 
it is a matter of interposing a consonant between 
a word which would otherwise end with a vowel, 
and a following word which begins with one. 
But the general principle reaches a good deal 
farther than that. Every beautiful phrase owes 
something to the easy and natural transition in 
sound between the different words that con- 
stitute it. 



VI 
MOVEMENT AND RHYTHM 

ANOTHER very important element in the sentence 
or in the stanza is the movement of the words. 
It makes a great difference whether the words 
move with ease or with difficulty, and whether 
the motion is slow or rapid, Dionysius of Hali- 
carnassus pointed out long ago how the slow 
pace of the blinded Polyphemus as he groped 
around the entrance of his cave is represented by 
Homer in the dragging line: 

KvKXa)*/* 8e arevdxtov re KCU cuStVcov o8vvrjcr^(i 5) 

and how the struggles of Achilles, loaded with 
his armour, against the torrent that sought to 
overwhelm him, are described in the stumbling 
lines: 



Aewov 8* a/i<' 'A%i\fja KVKWfjievov Icrraro Kvp,a f 

"QQtl 8* cV (TaKet TTtTTTCOV pOOS.(l6) 



Milton does the same thing when he is describing 
Satan struggling through chaos: 

"So he with difficulty and labour hard 
Mov'd on : with difficulty and labour he ; 
But, he once passed, soon after, when Man fell, 
Strange alteration !" 



MOVEMENT AND RHYTHM 163 

The huddled syllables "with difficulty and labour", 
repeated in a second line, represent by their 
stumbling and uneasy pronunciation, the toilsome 
struggle of the Fiend. 

Again, Milton manages in a line like: "Rocks, 
caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens, and shades of 
death", to give a sense of the heaped disorder of 
chaos. This is produced partly by the quick 
succession of short words, and partly by the 
omission of the copulative. If you rewrite the 
passage : 

"The rocks and caves, the lakes and fens and bogs 
And shades of death", 

it sounds more deliberate, and therefore less of 
a scrambled waste. The effect is still further 
reduced if you rewrite the passage again so as 
to reduce the monosyllables : 

"The rocky caverns, and the boggy fens, 
And shadowed lakes of death." 

So when Milton describes Satan's journey through 

chaos : 

"the Fiend 

O'er bog or steep, through strait, rough, dense, or rare, 
With head, hand, wings, or feet, pursues his way, 
And swims or sinks, or wades, or creeps, or flies", 



1 64 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

there is the effect both of wild disorder and of 
struggling haste. Again, it is a matter mainly 
of the use of monosyllables, and of the absence 
of connecting words. 

Longinus remarked that a sense of animation 
and hurry is given to a sentence when the copula- 
tive is omitted, and alleged an example from 
Xenophon: "Locking their shields together they 
thrust, fought, killed, died." Many examples of 
this might be quoted. If Caesar's famous de- 
spatch had read, Veni^ et vidi, et vici y it would 
not have nearly such a sudden and summary 
effect. The insertion of the conjunction slows 
down the movement, for the very action of making 
a definite connection between the verbs really 
separates them. "I came, and I saw, and I con- 
quered", suggests that there were three separate 
moments an arrival, a survey, and a victory. 
"I came, I saw, I conquered," suggests a rapidity 
of action which merges all these into one. When 
we read in "the song which Moses and the children 
of Israel sang unto the Lord" in Exodus xv. 9 : 
"The enemy said, I will pursue, I will overtake, 
I will divide the spoil", there is much more effect 
of fierce haste in the words than if the sentence 
had read: "I will pursue, and I will overtake, 
and I will divide the spoil." In Antonio's letter: 
"Sweet Bassanio, my ships have all miscarried, 



MOVEMENT AND RHYTHM 165 

my creditors grow cruel, my estate is very low, 
my bond to the Jew is forfeit", the omission of 
the conjunctions again creates the sense of a 
hurried sequence of misfortune. If it had been 
"My ships have all miscarried, and my creditors 
grow cruel, for my estate is very low; moreover, 
my bond to the Jew is forfeit", it would have 
sounded more like a deliberate and reasoned 
statement of distress, and therefore less like a 
hurried message from a man overwhelmed with 
a succession of disasters, and "all his ventures 
fail'd". There are half a dozen "ands" in the first 
stanza in which Tennyson describes the awakening 
of The Sleeping Beauty ', but it is very noticeable 
how the movement speeds up in the next quatrain 
when they are all omitted: 

"The hedge broke in, the banner blew, 

The butler drank, the steward scrawl'd, 
The fire shot up, the martin flew, 

The parrot scream'd, the peacock squall'd." 

The pace slows down again somewhat, although 
the verse is a description of bustle, when the 
conjunctions reappear in the next lines: 

"The maid and page renewed their strife, 

The palace bang'd, and buzz'd and clackt, 
And all the long-pent stream of life 
Dash'd downward in a cataract." 



1 66 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

It is natural for the conjunctions to be left out 
also when there is a quick and passionate heaping 
up of epithets, either in a lament or in a denuncia- 
tion. So Lear describes himself as "A poor, infirm, 
weak, and despised old man". It would sound 
rather less pathetic if he had said that he was: 
"A man both poor and infirm, both weak and 
despised/' Shelley denounces George the Third 
as "an old, mad, blind, despised and dying king". 
It would sound rather less virulent if he had 
written: "The king was old; he was both mad and 
blind; moreover, he was a despised and dying 



man." 



The general movement of a sentence also 
affects the sound and the suggestiveness of the 
particular words. Contrast the lines (both examples 
are from Shakespeare) : 

"Now see that noble and most sovereign reason, 
Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh", 

with: 

"a sullen bell 
Remembered knolling a departed friend." 

In the first example the words move rapidly, and 
suggest the irregular sound of jangling chimes; 
in the second, the words move slowly, and suggest 
the solemn note of a funeral knell. Here it is 



MOVEMENT AND RHYTHM 167 

largely a matter of the longer and lower vowels 
in the second passage, as against the shorter and 
higher vowels of the first. 

The same general principle as to movement 
applies not only to the immediate association of 
words in a phrase, but to the general character 
of the motion in a whole stanza or a whole 
paragraph. There is a marked contrast between 
the manly, forthright, rather staccato rhythm of 
Othello's speech before the Council : 



"Most potent, grave, and reverend signiors, 
My very noble and approved good masters, 
That I have ta'en away this old man's daughter, 
It is most true; true, I have married her: 
The very head and front of my offending 
Hath this extent, no more", 

and the uneasy, hesitant, insinuating rhythm of 
lago's sentences when he is speaking to Othello: 

"I do beseech you 

Though I perchance am vicious in my guess, 
As, I confess, it is my nature's plague 
To spy into abuses, and oft my jealousy 
Shapes faults that are not that your wisdom yet, 
From one that so imperfectly conceits, 
Would take no notice, nor build yourself a trouble 
Out of his scattering and unsure observance." 

But here it is not wholly rhythm, for there are 



1 68 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

more than twice as many sibilants in the traitor's 
speech as in Othello's, and these help to create 
the sense of sly insincerity. 

Why is Dryden's verse more vigorous than 
Pope's? Ultimately because Dryden's was the 
more masculine mind, no doubt, but the effect 
of vigour is largely due to the variety of pauses 
in Dryden's lines, as against the monotonous 
regularity of the pauses in Pope's. Contrast the 
most famous passages of satire in the two poets: 

"A man so various, that he seem'd to be 
Not one, but all mankind's epitome. 
Stiff in opinions, always in the wrong; 
Was everything by starts, and nothing longj 
But, in the course of one revolving moon, 
Was chemist, statesman, fiddler, and buffoon ; 
Then all for women, painting, rhyming, drinking, 
Besides ten thousand freaks that died in thinking. 
Blest madman ! who could every hour employ, 
With something new to wish, or to enjoy !" 

Here the pauses fall in the different lines thus: 
in the first line after the fifth syllable; in the 
second line after the second; in the third line 
after the fifth; in the fourth line after the sixth; 
in the fifth line after the first; in the sixth line 
after the third, fifth, and seventh ; in the seventh 
line after the fifth, seventh, and ninth; in the 



MOVEMENT AND RHYTHM 169 

eighth line there is no pause until the end; in the 
ninth line after the third; and in the tenth line 
after the sixth. Now take the same number of 
lines from Pope: 

fe 
"Alike reserved to blame, or to commend, 

A timorous foe) and a suspicious friend, 
Dreading ev'n fools^by flatt'rers besieged, 
And so obliging^that he ne'er obliged; 
Like Cato, give his little senate laws, 
And sit attentive to his own applause ; 
While wits and templars every sentence raise, 
And wonder with a foolish face of praise : 
Who but must laugh, if such a man there be ? 
Who would not weep, if Atticus were he ?" 

Here the pauses fall thus : in the first line after the 
sixth syllable; in the second line after the fourth; 
in the third line after the fourth; in the fourth 
line after the fifth; in the fifth line after the third; 
in the sixth, seventh, and eighth lines there is 
no pause until the end; in the ninth line after the 
fourth; and in the tenth line after the fourth. 

Here are five lines out of ten where the pause 
comes after the fourth or after the sixth syllable 
of the line, against two lines out of ten in Dryden. 
The pause falls at five different places in the ten 
lines of Pope; it falls at eight different places in 
the ten lines of Dryden. Now there can be no 



1 70 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

doubt at all that this contributes in a marked 
manner to what we feel to be the vigour, freedom, 
and naturalness of Dryden's verse, while the more 
regular fall of the pause in Pope's lines creates 
an impression of smooth artifice, and therefore, 
so to speak, of a high polish on the surface rather 
than of a strong grain beneath. 

Hazlitt has pointed out, with his usual insight, 
that this "smooth^ equable uniformity" is the 
defect of much of the prose of the eighteenth 
century, as well as of the verse. Addison was 
supposed to be the supreme example of excellence 
in prose, and Addison's style "was not indented, 
nor did it project from the surface. There was no 
stress laid on one word more than another it did 
not hurry on or stop short, or sink or swell with 
the occasion: it was throughout equally insipid, 
flowing, and harmonious, and had the effect of 
a studied recitation rather than of a natural dis- 
course." Wide as the difference is between their 
styles, much the same criticism applies to Johnson 
as to Addison. The one represents the monotony 
of ease, the other the monotony of pomp. The one 
ambles and the other marches, but the pace is 
depressingly regular in both. As tjazlittjias_,said 
again,, jt_ was the "pomp and uniformity 1 .!. of. 
Johnson's style that distinguished' him from other. 

^r ^M*" 1 ' i -~- ---- ^ W S^ ~.- ., ""- --"'-' "~^"-^ ...* - -- ~-^-- - w.~ " 



MOVEMENT AND RHYTHM 171 

writers, j/ All his periods are cast in the same mould, 
anTof the same size and shape, and consequently 
have little fitness to the variety of things he 
professes to treat of. His subjects are familiar, 
but the author is always upon stilts." Now nothing 
is more fatal than monotony, whether it be the 
regularity of a saunter or the regularity of a 
strut. Hazlitt himself is perhaps the best example 
in English of the opposite: his style is forceful, 
varied, and always natural. His prose ranges from 
the easiest kind of conversational language to 
passages of memorable eloquence and beauty, 
but it is never artificial and it is never monotonous. 
Indeed, Hazlitt's style is so excellent that it seems 
to have come by nature, like Dogberry's reading 
and writing. There is an absence of any apparent 
effort, and an absolute lack of pose. We never 
find ourselves halted, even by a fine touch, as 
we are sometimes in Stevenson's prose, for 
example, when we can almost see the author 
smirking at us from behind the successful phrase. 
With Hazlitt it is all unforced and natural; he 
writes as we can almost fancy that a man with 
a mind as rich as his, and with his delicate sense 
of language, might have talked. Think of the 
essay "On My First Acquaintance with Poets". 
It is full of quotations and literary allusions, like 



172 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

most of what Hazlitt wrote, but these are never 
dragged in by the head and shoulders : it is quite 
plain that they came naturally to his mind as he 
wrote. It is a marvel of musical English through- 
out, but one never has the feeling that the author 
is doing his best to write well; it is evident that 
the language suggests itself to him as the natural 
expression of his thought. This does not mean 
that there really is no artistry in his writing: 
it means that he had read great literature, and 
thought about it, and felt the greatness of it, 
and practised the art of writing himself, until a 
supreme skill in the use of words became instinc- 
tive with him. When you admire the agile grace 
of a dancer it does not mean that she does it by 
nature, but that she has studied and practised the 
steps until the graceful motions have come to 
look natural, and indeed to be natural, in the way 
of a second nature. 

But let us return to the question of variety. 
As Sir William Watson once pointed out in a 
critical essay, there is a special value in "suspen- 
sions, discords, and obstructions" in the texture 
of sentences, when these are sparingly and 
adroitly employed. What is true of all these 
issues of style appears herewith especial plainness. 
The unusual construction which might seem to 



MOVEMENT AND RHYTHM 173 

be a matter of pure technique a mere trick in 
the handling of words really has a psychological 
origin in the mind of the writer, and a psycho- 
logical effect on the mind of the reader. The 
English version of Psalm xxvii. 13 is "/ had 
fainted unless I had believed to see the goodness 
of the Lord in the land of the living". The first 
three words are not in the original Hebrew, but 
are supplied to complete the sense, as the italics 
indicate. What the Psalmist wrote was: "Unless 
I had believed to see the goodness of the Lord 
in the land of the living . . . !" The sentence is 
left unfinished, as if the speaker broke off with 
a gasp. What would have been his state unless 
he had believed is not said : it is left to the imagina- 
tion, as if it could not be uttered, and that is 
much more effective than any attempt to utter it. 
A broken sentence is as natural an expression 
of anger as of doubt and desolation. There is a 
classical example in Virgil, where Neptune rebukes 
the rebellious winds. Dryden translates the passage : 

"Audacious winds ! from whence 
This bold attempt, this rebel insolence ? 
Is it for you to ravage seas and land 
Unauthorised by my supreme command ? 
To raise such mountains on the troubled main ; 
Whom I but first 'tis fit the billows to restrain." 



174 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

There can be no doubt as to the effect of that 
indignant, interrupted Quos ego ! (17) Such 
an interruption of speech naturally represents 
any deep and poignant feeling. There is another 
famous example in Virgil, where Andromache 
questions /Eneas, but this time Dryden's trans- 
lation does not reproduce the effect. He renders 
the lines : 



Does young Ascanius life and health enjoy, 
Saved from the ruins of unhappy Troy?" 



but what Virgil wrote is literally: "What of the 
boy Ascanius? Does he survive and breathe the 

air ? whom to you when Troy Does he still 

mourn the loss of his mother?" The whole pathos 
of the lines is concentrated in that broken phrase 
Quern tlbi iam Troia (18) as if the mournful 
queen could not bear to say, "When Troy fell in 
blood and fire." 

There is rather a different use of the suspended 
sentence in Cicero's Oration against Verres. "It is 
an outrage to bind a Roman citizen; to scourge 
him is an atrocious crime; to put him to death 
is almost parricide; but to crucify him what 
shall I call it?" The pause suggests that both 
the indignation of the speaker and the monstrosity 



MOVEMENT AND RHYTHM 175 

of the deed are beyond expression in mere words. 
It is a good example of this when Lear says : 

"No, you unnatural hags, 
I will have such revenges on you both 
That all the world shall I will do such things 
What they are, yet I know not j but they shall be 
The terrors of the earth." 

How well the interrupted speech here, u The world 
shall I will do such things What they are, yet 
I know not . . ." represents the rage and impo- 
tence of the old man, who hardly knows what he 
is saying! It is much more effective, and much 
more true to life, than any unbroken fluency of 
vituperation. 

There are also many instances where some 
interruption or irregularity of stress and accent 
produces a marked effect of emphasis. When 
Tennyson writes: 

"And ghastly thro' the drizzling rain 
On the bald street breaks the bleak day", 

the dreariness of the last line is due almost wholly 
to the accentuation. The regular accent, "Oh 
the* bald street breaks the* bleak day", is plainly 
impossible; the line must be read: "On the bald 
street breaks the ble*ak day." That means that 



1 76 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

"bald" and "bleak" are thrown into special 
prominence, through the very displacement of 
accent, and most of the impression of cheerless- 
ness depends upon that detail. 

As an example of irregular accent of the worse 
kind a line of Matthew Arnold's The Scholar Gipsy 
might be alleged: "But it needs heaven-sent 
moments for this skill." It is evident that the first 
accent cannot fall in a regular way on the second 
word: you cannot say "But ft needs". . . . The 
line must be read "But it needs". . . . When it is 
read thus, however, the former words are thrown 
together "but-it" and no one could claim that 
this makes a gracious sound. It would have been 
well to avoid this ugly collision by some such 
change as "But there needs heaven-sent moments 
for this skill". On the other hand, how effectively 
Shakespeare uses a similar beginning! "But thy 
eternal summer shall not fade." Again it is 
impossible to read the line with the regular 
accent: "But th^ eternal summer shall not fdde", 
for it simply must be read: "But thy" terndl 
summe*r shall not fade", which brings the whole 
stress of the line on to the words which indicate 
permanence, and leaves the phrase "shall not 
fade" to fade away itself suggestively into silence. 

There are many examples where the whole 



MOVEMENT AND RHYTHM 177 

effect of a line or a sentence depends upon the 
accentual movement. A jumbling of accents may 
represent something jerky and irregular: a 
prolongation of accent may represent something 
slow and weary. Why do those lines of Words- 
worth : 

"And ere we came to Leonard's Rock 

He sang those witty rhymes 
About the crazy old church-clock, 
And the bewilder'd chimes", 

actually sound to the ear like rather erratic 
chimes? I suggest that it is partly the alternate 
alliteration . . . crazy . . . church . . . clock . . . 
chimes . . . which is really, of course, razy . . . 
church . . . klock . . . crimes . . . (with a change in 
the following vowel each time) and partly the 
ding-dong accentuation : 

"About the crazy old church clock 
And the tewildeYd chfmes." 

On the other hand, in Tennyson's lines : 

"Music that gentlier on the spirit lies 
Than tir'd eyelids upon tir'd eyes; 
Music that brings sweet sleep down from the 
blissful skies", 

M 



1 78 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

the necessary scansion prolongs the sound of 
"tir'd" "Than /-/V-V eyelids upon /-/>-Veyes", 
with an effect of lassitude. "T-i-r-d" sounds tired. 
Read the line "Than weary eyelids upon weary 
eyes", and though the meaning is the same there 
is not the same suggestion of weariness. A like 
effect is found in Matthew Arnold's lines: 



'But her heart was tired, tired, 
And now they let her be." 



In both these examples the effect is helped by the 
repetition of the word. 

Apart from any question of metre altogether, 
there is a difference of quantity between words 
in English, Thus everyone will recognise the 
difference as between the two syllables cheap and 
chip, where the vowel sound in the first word 
must be quite twice the length of the vowel 
sound in the second word. Moreover, the long 
sound is capable of being still further lengthened, 
but the short sound cannot be materially length- 
ened. A vendor of potato-chips, in shouting his 
wares, might proclaim that they were c-h-e-a-p I 
but he could hardly call them c-h-i-p-s ! Even in 
a staccato line like Gilbert's ^he words preserve 
their relative length, "Awaiting\he sensation of a 



MOVEMENT AND RHYTHM 179 

short sharp shock, With a cheap and chippy 
chopper on a big black block." 

Compare the quantity of the syllables in 
L* Allegro and in // Penseroso, where there is little 
difference in the length of the lines, and observe 
the contrast between the dancing motion of: 



"Haste thee, Nymph, and bring with thee 
Jest, and youthful jollity, 
Quips and Cranks and wanton Wiles, 
Nods and Becks and wreathed Smiles", 

and the solemn and stately movement of: 

"Come, pensive Nun, devout and pure, 
Sober, steadfast, and demure, 
All in a robe of darkest grain, 
Flowing with majestic train." 

If you take notice of the vowels you find that in 
the former passage there are more Fs, and more 
short A's, while in the latter passage the A's are 
longer, and there are nearly twice as many O's 
and U's, exactly as these sounds prevail in the 
phrases "a tripping, pattering, giddy dance* ' and 
"a slow, stately, awful procession". I do not 
defend these absurd phrases, of course, and only 
use them to illustrate the way that the choice of 
vowels, and their length, make the movement 



i8o SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

and represent the sense in these passages of 
Milton. 

When Wordsworth writes of the daffodils : 

"The waves beside them danced, but they 
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee 
A poet could not but be gay 
In such a jocund company ! 
I gazed and gazed but little thought 
What wealth the show to me had brought", 

it is plain that the short vowels in the first four 
lines give the sense of quick movement, and 
represent the dancing flowers and the dancing 
waves, but when in the last couplet the poet's 
mind passes into a meditative mood the quietness 
of reflection is suggested by the longer and 
slower vowels of gazed, and gazed, and thought, 
and show, and me, and brought. But that is not 
the whole truth. The thought of the last lines 
itself slows down the vowels ; the me in the last 
line, for example, is instinctively pronounced with 
a longer vowel than the be in the third line. It 
bears the accent, of course, which makes a 
difference, but not all the difference. If the line 
were read, "A poet could not be but gay", the 
word be would still be quicker than the word me 
in the last line, "What wealth the show to me had 
brought." 



MOVEMENT AND RHYTHM 181 

In Elizabeth's reign there was a serious attempt 
to write English verse in the classical metres, 
and even Spenser was carried away for a time 
by this pedantry. For it was pedantry, and nothing 
else. Despite some later examples, such as those 
by Coleridge, Clough, and Tennyson, which are 
exceedingly interesting in their way, the attempt 
cannot result (except by a lucky chance) in 
anything but barbarous experiments. For_the 

plain truth is that the whole structure of English 

r __.,. .- ..- ....-- . " '^ 

poetry is accentual, and quantity only enters into 
it in a very secohdary fashion. It does enter irrte 
it, in a way, foT~wheiTwe speak of accent we really 
mean three things in unison stress, pitch, and 
duration. "Are you going out? No, I am not." 
Here the main stress is on "out" and "not", 
but it is accompanied, in the first word, by a 
rising inflection, and in the second by a falling 
one: a question nearly always ends with a 
heightened pitcfi, and a refusal with a lowered 
pitch, .As to duration "out" is here the longer 
syllable and "not" the shorter one, but that is 
not due to the quantity of the words themselves, 
but to the way that their position and meaning 
in the sentence affect the duration of their 
utterance. The one word would be shorter in 
Macbeth's exclamation : 



1 82 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 



'And all our yesterdays have lighted fools 

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle !' 



and the other would be longer in lago's speech: 

"Not poppy, nor mandragora, 
Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world, 
Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep 
Which thou owedst yesterday." 

Think of the great words of the prophet: "For, 
behold, darkness shall cover the earth and gross 
darkness the peoples." The stress upon "darkness" 
is in each case the same, but the duration of the 
second word is greater than that of the first, 
because there is a secondary stress upon "gross", 
and that would rob the following word of its 
proper amount of stress, unless it were somewhat 
prolonged, and so you have: "For, behold, 
darkness shall cover the earth, and gross d-a-r-k- 
n-e-s-s the peoples." 

The displacement of accent, as we have seen, 
is sometimes used to produce a marked effect 
of sound and emphasis. But generally in poetry 
(where alone, of course, it can occur) it is used 
merely to vary the regularity of the metrical 
scheme. In every metre there is a regular succession 
of accent: it would not otherwise be metre. But 
if a writer keeps religiously to the succession the 



MOVEMENT AND RHYTHM 183 

result is monotony, "the right butter-woman's 
rank to market" as Shakespeare called it; up And 
d6wn> up and d6wn^ up And d6wn^ like the regular 
trot of a horse. Consequently every great poet 
varies the fall of the accent within the accentual 
scheme. He varies it according to the meaning, 
of course, but the result is to produce variety. 

I have seen in a very scholarly book a line 
of Shelley's scanned thus: 

"Oh weep f6r Ad6ndls ! The quick Dreams, 
The passion- winged Ministers of thought . . ." 

Surely that is quite impossible. The line must be 
read: "Oh weep for Ad6na\s! The quick Dre*ams. 
. . ." The article cannot carry the stress, which is 
all upon the thought that the dreams are quick. 
The accent, therefore, accords with the meaning. 
But the point is that Shelley chose to express his 
meaning by words which disturb the accentual 
scheme. He might have written: "Oh weep for 
Adonais! Rapid dreams . . ." where the accents 
would have fallen quite regularly. He did not, 
but wrote a line which has the double effect of 
varying the monotony of the regular stress, and 
bringing an extra stress upon the epithet "quick". 
There are innumerable examples of this in the 
poets. Shakespeare wrote: "And trouble deaf 



184 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

heaven with my bootless cries." The regular 
accentuation of this is absurdly impossible; it 
simply cannot be read: "And tr6uble de*af heav'n 
with my b6otless cries"; it must be scanned: 
"And tr6uble* daf heav'n with my b6otless 
cries." Milton wrote: "O fountain Arethuse, and 
thou honoured flood ..." where there is not only 
displacement of accent, but also a redundant 
syllable, and where the line can only be scanned 
"6 fduntain Arthtise, and th6u h6notir'd 
fl6od . . ." 

This matter of accent and emphasis has all 
kinds of minor relations with the general issue of 
style. Thus Johnson remarks, in The Lives of the 
Poets: "The words do and did y which so much 
degrade in present estimation the line that admits 
them, were in the time of Cowley little censured 
or avoided." He means, of course, the use of these 
words as auxiliaries, as in the lines of Cowley, 
which he quotes : 

"The bondman of the cloister so 
All that he does receive, does always owe." 

All our early poets use the words thus, without 
any hesitation, as when Milton writes of: 

"the wondrous horse of brass 
On which the Tartar king did ride." 



MOVEMENT AND RHYTHM 185 

Before the time of Johnson writers had come to 
feel as we do about the employment of these 
forms, as Pope's famous couplet is enough to prove : 



Where feeble expletives their aid do join 
And ten low words oft creep in one dull line.' 



The change in usage is obvious, but I have never 
met with any attempt to explain it, though the 
explanation is not far to seek. Wherever there is 
a choice of synonymous expressions a differentia- 
tion between them is sure to begin, sooner or 
later. Once it was possible for the past tense to 
say indifferently "did write'' or "wrote", but the 
former phrase began to develop an emphasis on 
the "did", and to-day there is a sharp distinction 
in meaning. "I wrote" merely states the fact. 
"I did write" states it emphatically, with the 
suggestion that it has been doubted or questioned. 
That is the real reason against the use of "do" 
and "did" where a versifier uses them to pad 
out a line. The young lady whose verses were 
admired by Huck Finn wrote in her immortal 
ode to the memory of Stephen Dowling Bots : 

"Oh no ! Then list with tearful eye 

While I his fate do tell, 
His soul did from this cold world fly, 
By falling down a well." 



1 86 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

She merely meant "while I tell his fate", and 
"his soul flew from this cold world**. The do 
and did are quite unnecessary, and they would 
also introduce a false and misleading emphasis 
into the lines, if anything could make them more 
absurd than they are. 

The effects of accent and emphasis and rhythm 
are closely and, indeed, inextricably connected. 
Thus the rhythmic movement of a particular 
metre makes it suitable or unsuitable for the 
utterance of a particular sentiment. Aristotle 
observed that iambic verse in Greek was the most 
proper for tragedy, because while it raised the 
style above prose, it was nearer prose than any 
other kind of verse. There is real insight here. 
Any great stress of feeling makes for simplicity, 
and therefore any special artifice is unnatural 
in deeply passionate verse. Most of our tragic 
dramas in English verse are in blank verse, for 
even the artifice of rhyme is rather too obvious 
in a passionate tragedy. 

It has been remarked that Shakespeare makes 
his witches and fairies speak in short lines of 
four accents, and generally in rhyme, as with 
Puck's speeches in A Midsummer Night's Dream y 
and the spells of the weird sisters in Macbeth. 
The point of this seems to be that exactly as 



MOVEMENT AND RHYTHM 187 

decasyllabic blank verse is the nearest approach 
to prose, in its lack of constructive artifice, and 
is therefore most natural in ordinary dramatic 
speech, so, on the other hand, a sort of staccato 
rhyming chant marks off the speech of super- 
natural beings as something different from the 
ordinary speech of mortals. The witches would 
have seemed more like the rest of the characters 
in the play if they had talked as the rest of the 
characters do if, for example, the first hag had 
said: 

"Go round about the steaming caldron first, 
And throw the poison'd entrails in the broth. 
A toad that underneath a chilly stone 
For more than thirty days and nights has gathered 
The swelter'd venom in his loathly sleep, 
Shall first of all boil i' the charmed pot", 

instead of: 

"Round about the caldron go ; 
In the poison'd entrails throw, 
Toad, that under cold stone 
Days and nights hast thirty-one 
Swelter'd venom sleeping got, 
Boil thou first i' the charmed pot." 

On the other hand, a metre like that would be 
inconceivable as a medium for some of the 



1 88 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

speeches of the mortal beings in the play, even 
if it were denuded of rhyme. Imagine Macbeth 

saying : 

"Canst thou not 
Minister to minds diseased. 
Pluck from memory rooted griefs, 
Raze the troubles of the brain, 
With oblivious antidote 
Cleanse the breast of perilous stuff 
Weighing on the weary heart?" 

instead of: 

"Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased 
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow, 
Raze out the written troubles of the brain, 
And with some sweet oblivious antidote 
Cleanse the stuff'd bosom of that perilous stuff 
Which weighs upon the heart?" 

There are many examples in our poetry where the 
metre employed is quite plainly the best one, and 
sometimes the only one, for that particular use. 
And there are some instances where the choice of 
metre is unfortunate. Thus the anapaests of 
Cowper's Verses^ supposed to be written by Alexander 
Selkirk, are most unsuited to the sentiment: 

"I am monarch of all I survey, 

My right there is none to dispute ; 
From the centre all round to the sea, 
I am lord of the fowl and the brute." 



MOVEMENT AND RHYTHM 189 

No desperate solitary would ever have bemoaned 
his fate to such a horn-pipe of a metre. He would 
have been much more likely to cast his lament 
into another mould, such as this : 

"Monarch am I of all that I survey, 

My right no living creature can dispute; 
For from the centre to the encircling sea, 
I am the lonely lord of fowl and brute." 

I am far from claiming that there is any improve- 
ment on Cowper here in any respect but the 
metrical one, but the changed metre certainly is 
an improvement, for the movement is slower, and 
escapes the hop, skip, and jump of those unhappy 
anapaests. 

As Coleridge said, in the lines which he wrote 
for a boy, to illustrate the different classical feet, 
"With a leap and a bound the swift anapaests 
throng", and that swift, leaping, bounding metre is 
the last that should be used for what would 
naturally be a slow, depressed, melancholy 
monologue. 

Think of another poem of Cowper's one of 
the noblest elegies in the language and imagine 
it perverted into the anapaests of which he was so 
fond: 



SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

"Toll a knell for the ill-fated brave ! 

The brave that shall conquer no more : 
All sunk 'neath the pitiless wave, 
Fast by their beloved native shore !" 

That this metre is hopelessly unfit for the purpose 
must be plain to everybody. But how splendidly 
the sound fits the sense as Cowper wrote the 

verses : 

"Toll for the brave ! 

The brave that are no more ; 
All sunk beneath the wave, 
Fast by their native shore !" 

Here it is not the metre alone that produces the 
effect. That is a very simple iambic measure, 
with six syllables in each line, though Cowper 
uses it freely, sometimes adding a syllable and 
sometimes dropping one. The effect of the lines 
is due to the skilful use of the long vowels, which 
the metre allows : 

"Toll for the brave, 

The brave that are no more ..." 

Not only are the principal vowels long, but the 
first is artificially prolonged by the fact that a 
line which ought to have six syllables according 
to the metrical pattern of the poem, has only 



MOVEMENT AND RHYTHM 191 

four, so that it is necessarily read: "Toll . . . 
... for the brave . . ." The long vowel of the first 
word is thus further lengthened until it sounds 
like the slow tolling of a funeral bell. 

A lengthy metre seems naturally suited to the 
expression of space, as in Robert Bridges* lines : 

"Whither, O splendid ship, thy white sails crowding, 
Leaning across the bosom of the urgent West, 
That fearest nor sea rising, nor sky clouding, 
Whither away, fair rover, and what thy quest?" 

It is equally suited to the expression of speed, if 
it is sustained speed, as in Browning's verse: 

"Not a word to each other; we kept the great pace 
Neck by neck, stride by stride, never changing our place ; 
I turned in my saddle and made its girths tight, 
Then shortened each stirrup, and set the pique right, 
Rebuckled the cheek strap, chained slacker the bit, 
Nor galloped less steadily Roland a whit." 

It is curious that another poem of Browning's is 
also about a ride, and is in a short metre, which 
might seem to contradict what has been said. 
I do not think it does. The long lines of How 
They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix 
suggest the length as well as the speed of the 
journey the long swinging stride of the horses 



SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

who gallop all the night through. The short lines 
of Through the Metidja to Abd-el-Kadr: 

"As I ride, as I ride, 
Ne'er has spur my swift horse plied, 
Yet his hide streaked and pied, 
As I ride, as I ride 

Shows where sweat has sprung and dried, 
Zebra-footed, ostrich-thighed 
How has vied stride with stride 
As I ride, as I ride I" 

suggest not so much the sustained speed of a 
long journey as the mere rapidity of the ride. 
The jerky gallop of the verses depicts to the 
mind the quick movement of the horse's legs, 
and the motion of the rider, bobbing up and down 
in the saddle, without any particular suggestion 
that all this is prolonged for hours. 

It is noticeable that in a stanza where the final 
line is shorter than the rest, that fact conditions 
the character and the use of the line, with various 
results. The short line naturally tends to be more 
epigrammatic than the others, because of its 
brevity, as in George Herbert's stanza: 

"Let us (said He) pour on him all we can : 
Let the world's riches, which dispersed lie, 
Contract into a span." 



MOVEMENT AND RHYTHM 193 

Or the shorter line becomes an imperative, with 
the natural curtness of a command, as in Sir 
Thomas Wyat's verses : 

"Forget not yet the tried intent 
Of such a truth as I have meant ; 
My great travail so gladly spent, 
Forget not yet!" 

Or, when the sentiment demands it, the utterance 
of the shorter line is prolonged until it takes as 
long as the longer line, with an effect of delibera- 
tion and melancholy, as in Stevenson's quatrain: 

"Be it granted me to behold you again in dying, 
Hills of home ! and to hear again the call; 
Hear about the graves of the martyrs the peewees crying, 
And hear no more at 



where as much time as is needed for uttering the 
ten syllables of the second line or even a longer 
time is spent in speaking the six syllables of 
"A-n-d h-e-a-r n-o m-o-r-e a-t a-1-1". 

The matter of length has a marked bearing, 
also, on the quality of prose. Longer sentences 
naturally occur where the theme is solemn and 
the language stately. Where the issues are less 
serious, and the style is more lively and familiar, 
shorter sentences are the rule. The peril is, of 



194 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

course, that seriousness may degenerate into 
pomposity, and liveliness into flippancy: the long 
sentences may become ponderous, and the short 
sentences jaunty. 

The mere length of a writer's sentences has a 
much greater effect on his style than is generally 
realised. Compare Johnson and Macaulay. Jeffrey 
said to Macaulay, when he was beginning to 
contribute to the Edinburgh Review, "The more 
I think, the less I can conceive where you picked 
up that style." Now, it would sound absurd to 
suggest that Macaulay's style is derived from 
Johnson's, but something might be said for 
that contention. The striking difference between 
the two styles is more a matter of the length of 
sentences than anything else. The difference very 
largely disappears if you break up Johnson's long 
sentences into much shorter ones, on the whole, 
but with some variety in the length. Macaulay 
was an immeasurably better writer than Johnson, 
but he was undoubtedly brought up on the 
Johnsonian style: he sometimes even talked it 
when a child, as on the famous occasion when he 
said: "I thank you, Madam, the agony is abated!" 
But he was a younger contemporary of Coleridge 
and Wordsworth; he had a great deal more 
imagination than Johnson, and much more 



MOVEMENT AND RHYTHM 195 

critical ability; and he hated pedantry. Conse- 
quently he escaped the Johnsonian mannerism, 
and wrote a lively and most readable style, but 
when you look into it you find that Johnson's 
prose, resolved into shorter, sharper sentences, is 
not altogether unlike Macaulay's. 

Here is a passage from the Rambler (No. 136): 
"The regard which they whose abilities are 
employed in the works of imagination claim from 
the rest of mankind, arises in a great measure 
from their influence on futurity. Rank may be 
conferred by princes, and wealth bequeathed by 
misers or by robbers ; but the honours of a lasting 
name, and the veneration of distant ages, only 
the sons of learning have the power of bestowing. 
While, therefore, it continues one of the charac- 
teristicks of rational nature to decline oblivion, 
authors never can be wholly overlooked in the 
search after happiness, nor become contemptible 
but by their own fault. The man who considers 
himself as constituted the ultimate judge of 
disputable characters, and entrusted with the 
distribution of the last terrestrial rewards of merit, 
ought to summon all his fortitude to the support 
of his integrity, and resolve to discharge an office 
of such dignity with the most vigilant caution and 
scrupulous justice. To deliver examples to pos- 



196 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

terity, and to regulate the opinion of future times, 
is no slight or trivial undertaking; nor is it easy 
to commit more atrocious treason against the 
great republick of humanity, than by falsifying 
its records and misguiding its decrees.'* Now 
rewrite the passage, leaving out one or two 
Latinisms, and also (what is much more im- 
portant) breaking it up into shorter sentences, 
interspersed with occasional longer ones: "The 
regard which imaginative writers claim from 
mankind arises largely from their influence on 
the future. Rank may be conferred by princes. 
Wealth may be bequeathed by misers, or indeed 
by robbers. It is only the sons of learning who 
can bestow the honours of a lasting name. The 
veneration of distant ages is in their gift. As long 
therefore as the love of fame is a characteristic 
of rational minds authors will be sought out. 
They will not be forgotten in the search for 
happiness. They will not become contemptible 
but by their own fault. The man who considers 
himself the final judge of doubtful characters 
should be impartial. He ought to summon all his 
fortitude to the support of his integrity .f If he 
thinks himself entrusted with the distribution of 
the last earthly rewards of merit he should resolve 
to discharge an office of such dignity well, It will 



MOVEMENT AND RHYTHM 197 

need the most vigilant caution. It will require 
the most scrupulous justice. To deliver examples 
to posterity is no slight undertaking. To regulate 
the opinion of future times is no trivial responsi- 
bility. It is not easy to commit a more atrocious 
treason against the great republic of humanity 
than by falsifying its records and misguiding its 
decrees.*' Unless I am much mistaken that 
might almost though not quite pass muster in 
one of Macaulay's essays. 

Let us try the experiment again. Johnson 
wrote in the Rambler (No. 21): "That eminence 
of learning is not to be gained without labour, 
at least equal to that which any other kind of 
greatness can require, will be allowed by those 
who wish to elevate the character of a scholar; 
since they cannot but know, that every human 
acquisition is valuable in proportion to the 
difficulty employed in its attainment. And that 
those, who have gained the esteem and veneration 
of the world, by their knowledge or their genius, 
are by no means exempt from the solicitude 
which any other kind of dignity produces, may 
be conjectured from the innumerable artifices 
which they make use of to degrade a superior, 
to repress a rival, or to obstruct a follower; 
artifices so gross and mean, as to prove evidently 



198 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

how much a man may excel in learning, without 
being either more wise or more virtuous than 
those whose ignorance he pities or despises." 

Once again, rewrite the passage, without 
much change of vocabulary, but in a series of 
short sentences, with longer ones (but not as 
long as Johnson's) interspersed: " Eminence of 
learning is not to be gained without labour. 
The labour is at least equal to that which any 
other kind of greatness can require. This will be 
allowed by all those who wish to exalt the charac- 
ter of a scholar. Such persons know that every 
human acquisition is valuable in proportion to 
the difficulty overcome in its attainment. Those 
who have gained the esteem and veneration of 
the world by their knowledge or their genius are 
by no means exempt from solicitude. This, as 
well as any other kind of dignity, produces it. 
So much may be conjectured from the innumerable 
artifices of learned men. These artifices are used 
to degrade a superior, to repress a rival, or to 
obstruct a follower. They are often gross and 
mean. Such instances prove evidently how much 
a man may excel in learning without being either 
more wise or more virtuous than those whose 
ignorance he pities or despises." Surely that, in a 
very great measure, has ceased to be like Johnson, 



MOVEMENT AND RHYTHM 199 

and has become not much unlike Macaulay. 
It is true, of course, that Macaulay would not 
have used so many abstract phrases, and that he 
would probably have thrown in a sharp illustration 
or two from persons and events. But the experi- 
ment shows how much of Johnson's ponderosity 
is due to his long and complex sentences, and 
how much of Macaulay's lighter and brighter 
style is due to shorter and simpler ones. 

To make sure that this is not a purely subjective 
judgment I have tested some pages of Johnson 
and of Macaulay on this point, and find that 
Johnson has an average of 48 words in a sentence, 
and the length of his sentences ranges from 1 7 to 
132 words, while Macaulay has an average of 
only 20 words in a sentence (much less than half 
Johnson's average), and his sentences vary in 
length from 5 to 70 words. Moreover, an effect 
of variety is produced by the way that Macaulay 
alternates the length of his sentences. Most of 
Johnson's sentences run to 40 or 50 words. 
Macaulay uses two or three short sentences of 
half a dozen to a dozen words, and then one of 
twice or thrice the length. 

The point may be further illustrated by an 
appeal to Gibbon, from whom Macaulay perhaps 
learned the lesson of variety. The style of Gibbon 



200 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

is not less latinised than that of Johnson; I think 
a careful examination would show that there are 
even more words of Latin origin in Gibbon than 
in Johnson. The fact is that Johnson's occasional 
use of unfamiliar words like "procerity" and 
"labefaction" the only adequate comment on 
these is Stevenson's exclamation on encountering 
another vocable, "Golly, what a word!" and his 
constant use of abstract nouns, has created an 
impression that his Latinisms are the one vice of 
his style, and that his unreadable ponderosity is 
due to these alone. I do not believe that this is so. 
Gibbon's magnificent style is readable enough, 
and does not impress anyone as elephantine, and 
yet, as I have said, it is quite as latinised as John- 
son's, if not more so. But Gibbon writes with 
much more imagination than Johnson; he uses 
many more visual and vivid words; and above all 
his sentences are shorter, and more varied both 
in their respective length and in their internal 
construction. I have once more tested the matter. 
In a page of Gibbon the sentences average 30 
words each, against Johnson's 48, and they vary 
in length from 8 to 59 words, as against Johnson's 
17 to 132 words. It is plain that the mere length 
of a sentence or a stanza, as well as the internal 
movement of it which is due to the grouping of 



MOVEMENT AND RHYTHM 201 

the syllables and the fall of the accents, is a very 
considerable factor in the general effect produced, 
both in prose and in poetry. 

Another point may be noted here. The move- 
ment and the balance of a sentence are closely 
connected. The rhythm and the structure are 
interdependent. This may be illustrated by the 
use of antithesis, which was so common in the 
prose of the eighteenth century. It is, for example, 
almost the whole secret of Gibbon's constructive 
style. This may be illustrated from every page of 
his writings. These examples are all from the 
early part of his great work. A tax was so oppres- 
sive that "whilst the revenue was increased by 
extortion, it was diminished by despair". The 
armies of Rome in the days of Constantine "were 
chiefly composed of veterans who had almost 
forgotten, or of new levies who had never acquired, 
the use of arms and the practice of war". The 
dignity of officials in the Empire was "displayed 
in a variety of trifling and solemn ceremonies, 
which it was a study to learn, and a sacrilege to 
neglect". The Emperor Constantine "possessed 
magnanimity to conceive, and patience to execute, 
the most arduous designs, without being checked 
either by the prejudices of education or by the 
clamours of the multitude". The proselytes of 



202 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

Christianity often delayed their baptism until the 
approach of death, for there were many "who 
judged it imprudent to precipitate a salutary 
rite, which could not be repeated; to throw away 
an inestimable privilege, which could never be 
recovered". The theology of the Church u which 
it was incumbent to believe, which it was impious 
tp doubt, and which it might be dangerous, and 
even fatal, to mistake, became the familiar topic 
of private meditation and popular discourse". 

There is no doubt that this antithetical method 
is remarkably effective when it is in the hands of 
a master, though it naturally tends to become 
wearisome when it is maintained through thou- 
sands of pages. The effectiveness of it is true., 
I would suggest, to a quality which is next of 
kin to wit. Wit is essentially a quickness of mind 
which seizes upon some opposition, and puts it 
into a sharp and memorable phrase. Any example 
of real wit will illustrate this. There is an excellent 
story to the effect that when the Emperor William 
the Second visited the Vatican, he was entering 
the Pope's apartment for a private interview, 
and Count Herbert Bismarck tried to thrust in 
after him. The Papal major-domo barred the way, 
and the intruder said indignantly, "I am the 
Count Herbert von Bismarck!" The major-domo 



MOVEMENT AND RHYTHM 203 

said: "That may explain your conduct, but it 

does not excuse it." He was saying in effect, that 

Bismarck was a rude person, and that there was 

no excuse for his rudeness. But he said it in a 

clever antithesis. Now Gibbon does what is really 

the same kind of thing. When he wants to say 

that the taxes became so heavy that the actual 

amount of revenue received was lessened, because 

the impositions went beyond the capacity of the 

taxpayers, he seizes upon the contrast between 

the increase of the tax and the decrease of the 

revenue, rounds it off by another contrast between 

the greed of the government and the depression 

of the people, and expresses it in a sharp phrase 

. . . "increased by extortion . . . diminished by 

despair". . . . When he wants to say that the 

armies were composed of old soldiers who were 

almost past service, ancKof raw recruits who had 

no experience of war, he seizes upon the opposition 

again, putting it into a neatly contrasted phrase, 

"veterans who had almost forgo&eji . . . new levies 

who had never acquired" . . . and tfien, toiafence 

these two halves of a phrase with twoSnore, he 

splits the notion of military efficiency int(T\the 

use of arms . . . the practice of war". . . . Thi^ 

constantly gives to his style something of the 

pointed quality of the epigram the quality which 



204 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

makes an epigram so easy to remember, and so 
striking to quote. 

Now contrast Gibbon and Macaulay in this 
matter. I think that on a scrutiny Macaulay 
would be found to employ the method of anti- 
thesis almost as constantly as Gibbon, but his 
sentences are generally shorter, and his antitheses 
are less exactly balanced, as a rule. As Stevenson 
once remarked, the pleasure we derive from a 
fine sentence may be heightened by "an element 
of surprise as, very grossly, in the common figure 
of the antithesis, or, with much greater subtlety, 
where an antithesis is first suggested, and then 
deftly evaded". There is no doubt that some of 
the effectiveness of Macaulay's style is due to 
this the recurrence of the antitheses is not so 
regular as in Gibbon, and the parallels are not so 
precise. Macaulay wrote in the famous essay on 
Milton: "Milton was, like Dante, a statesman 
and a lover; and, like Dante, he had been un- 
fortunate in ambition and in love. He had sur- 
vived his health and his sight, the comforts of his 
home, and the prosperity of his party. Of the 
great men by whom he had been distinguished 
at his entrance into life, some had been taken 
away from the evil to come; some had carried into 
foreign climates their unconquerable hatred of 



MOVEMENT AND RHYTHM 205 

oppression; some were pining in dungeons; and 
some had poured forth their blood on scaffolds. " 
Gibbon would probably have written something 
like this: "The author of Paradise Lost, like the 
author of the Divina Commedia y was both a 
statesman and a lover; and Milton resembles 
Dante in the circumstance that he was unfortunate 
in either character, for he was disappointed in his 
political ambitions, and he was distressed in his 
personal affections. He had survived the double 
blessing of health and of sight; he had seen the 
felicity of his domestic condition lost, and the 
prosperity of his political faction extinguished. 
The great men by whom he had been favoured 
at his entrance into life had experienced a variety 
of misfortune; of those who had been animated by 
the same invincible hatred of oppression, some 
had found safety in exile, and some in death; some 
pined in the misery of a solitary dungeon and 
some perished in the ignominy of a public 
scaffold/* 



VII 
QUALITY AND DESCRIPTION 

THE final quality of a word depends upon all the 
elements that have been previously considered. 
It is the resultant of sound and significance and 
history and usage and association, all conditioned 
by the position of the word and the rhythm of 
the sentence. We may take proper names as a 
first illustration of quality, since here the choice 
and the usage of the words cannot be affected by 
shades of meaning. The poets delight to use names 
in a decorative way, and the primary attraction is 
doubtless the sound. There are famous examples 
in Homer and Virgil. Homer recites with evident 
pleasure the names of the Greek captains,(i9) and 
of the places whence they came "Peneleos and 
Leitos; Arkesilaos and Prothoenor and Klonios 
. . . rocky Aulis . . . grassy Haliartos . . . sacred 
Nisa and Anthedon on the far borders . . . 
Aspledon and Orchomenos of the Minyai . . . 
the river Kephisos and Lilaia by Kephisos* founts 
..." and so on for scores of lines. Virgil does 
the same with the names of the nymphs of 
Cyrene "Drymo and Xantho, Ligea and Phyl- 



QUALITY AND DESCRIPTION 207 

lodoce . . . Nescaee and Spio, Thalia and Cymo- 
doce . . . Ephyre and Opis; and Asian Deiopeia, 
and swift Arethusa. . . ."( 2O ) So Horace writes: 
"Let others praise famed Rhodes or Mitylene 
of Ephesus, or the walls of two-sea'd Corinth, or 
Thebes made illustrious by Bacchus, or Delphi 
by Apollo, or Thessalian Tempe."(2i) And to 
leap across the centuries Villon likewise rings 
the changes on a series of names : 

"Ou est Claquin le bon Breton ? 
Ou le conte Daulphin d'Auvergne 
Et le bon feu due d' Alencon ? 
Mais ou est le preux Charlemaigne ? 
Et Jehanne la bonne Lorraine 
Qu'Englois bruleront a Rouan ; 
Ou sont ilz, ou, Vierge souvraine ? 
Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan ?" 

Of our English poets, Milton does it most of all. 
Some of his most musical verse depends alto- 
gether upon the sound of names. Think of lines 
like: 

"Where the great Vision of the guarded mount, 
Looks toward Namancos and Bayona's hold", 



or: 



Blind Thamyris and blind Maeonides, 
And Tiresias and Phineus, prophets old", 



208 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

or: 



"Orcus and Ades, and the dreaded name 
Of Demogorgon", 

or a passage where half a dozen lines are crowded 
with resounding names, like this: 

"And all who since baptised or infidel, 
Jousted in Aspramont, or Montalban, 
Damasco, or Marocco, or Trebisond, 
Or whom Biserta sent from Afric shore 
When Charlemain with all his peerage fell 
By Fontarabbia." 

Now we must all feel that such names as these 
are stately and sonorous. Some names also seem 
uncannily apt. But it is difficult to say how much 
of this is mere sound, and how much is continued 
and complex association. "Demogorgon" surely 
sounds like a "dreaded name**, but we probably 
import into it the associations of "gorgons and 
hydras and chimaeras dire". It is recorded that 
one day, when Boiardo was out hunting, Rodo- 
monte flashed into his mind as exactly what he 
wanted for the name of the hero of his epic, and 
returning home forthwith he had the bells of 
the village church rung to celebrate the happy 
invention. But even an invented name like this 



QUALITY AND DESCRIPTION 209 

does not altogether escape associations of sound 
and sense. The second syllable must have sug- 
gested mountain, and we wonder whether the 
first syllable did not bear with it in the poet's 
mind some dim association of rosy a memory of 
Homer's poSoSa/cruAos T?O)?, "rosy-fingered dawn", 
perhaps. It was the unhappy fate of the 
name Rodomonte, by the way, through the later 
use of it by Ariosto, to give a word to Italian 
(rodomontata) with the sense of "boasting, 
bluster", and thence to both French and English 
as rodomontade. One could scarcely find a better 
example of a beautiful word with an unworthy 
meaning. 

It is almost impossible to invent a word that 
does not remind you of the sound of other words, 
and therefore of the significance of other words. 
Humpty Dumpty explained to Alice that the 
word slithy in his memorable poem meant some- 
thing like "lithe and slimy", and that mimsy was 
"flimsy and miserable". He did not explain 
chortle (which has almost established itself in the 
language), but it is equally evident that the word 
means a mixture of "chuckle" and "snort". 

Whatever we may think of Boiardo's inspira- 
tion, it is a fact that there are names which suit 
some characters and words which suit some 



it 
a 



210 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

things with what seems like a predestined fitness. 
Some of this, no doubt, is sound, and some of it 
is the long habit of association in the mind 
between the word and the meaning. It is said 
that when a famous cricketer was asked why a 
yorker" was called by that name, he said, 
Why, what else could you call it?" So in the 
cartoon in Punch the townsman who spent his 
holiday on a farm, when he was watching the 
pigs as they rooted in the dirt, said, with dis- 
gusted conviction, "Ah, no wonder they're called 
pigs!" In these examples the one word had been 
so intimately connected in the cricketer's mind 
with a particular kind of bowling, and the other 
word in the citizen's mind with general filthiness, 
that the association seemed natural and inevitable. 
Yet one may wonder whether it is all association. 
Is there not something that suggests a dropping 
motion in the sound of the one word, and some- 
thing generally ignoble in the sound of the other ? 
But it is always difficult to assess the effect of 
mere association as against mere sound. If 
Shakespeare's name had been Wagstaff we 
should certainly have spoken to-day of "a poet of 
almost Wagstaffian genius" without feeling that 
there was anything quaint in tne sound of the 
phrase. We know that the name Keats seemed to 



QUALITY AND DESCRIPTION 211 

some critics in the early nineteenth century an 
impossibly common name for a poet. Does any- 
one feel that now? Still, there can be no question 
that some words are beautiful or ugly in them- 
selves as mere sounds. It is curious that the names 
of many of the gems are beautiful, and a foreigner 
who did not know what one of the words meant 
would recognise the beauty of the sounds if 
someone read aloud to him the description of the 
foundations of the New Jerusalem in Rev. xxL 
1 8, 20. "The first foundation was jasper; the 
second, sapphire; the third, chalcedony; the 
fourth, emerald; the fifth, sardonyx; the sixth, 
sardius; the seventh, chrysolite; the eighth, 
beryl; the ninth, topaz; the tenth, chrysoprasus ; 
the eleventh, jacinth; the twelfth, amethyst." It 
may be noted that all these are the same words 
in the original Greek, and practically of the same 
sound, except the fourth, which from the Greek 
oym/oaySos passed into Latin as smaragdus^ and 
thence through the Old French esmeralde into 
English as "emerald". This is an extreme 
example of the indebtedness of our language to 
Greek, for there are not many English sentences 
into which one could crowd so many Greek 
derivatives, apart from scientific technicalities. 
Probably the derivation and the history of the 



212 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

words, as well as their sound and associations, 
have a good deal to do with the fact that many 
of the proper names in Malory's Morte d* Arthur 
are singularly beautiful names of persons like 
Bedivere, Galahad, Guinivere, Merlin, Leode- 
grance, Pellenore, and names of places, like 
Arroy, Avilion, Bedigraine, Broceliande, Lyonesse, 
Tintagel. I fancy that this is partly in the exotic 
look of the words, as well as in the sound. The 
name Murlin, which I have seen over a draper's 
shop, does not look so delightful as Merlin, and 
if there were a place in Lancashire called Broseley 
End it would not look nearly so charming as 
Broceliande. But the very look of the words is a 
matter of association. Murlin over a draper's 
store merely recalls shops and streets in a modern 
town. Broseley End in Lancashire, if there were 
such a place, would merely recall cotton-mills 
and smoky chimneys. But the names in Malory 
recall a world of romance the one name calls 
up a vision of the old enchanter, and "a charm, 
with woven paces and with waving arms", and 
the other name suggests a dim, romantic forest, 
"the wild woods of Broceliande". There are two 
streets in Birmingham, a few miles from where I 
live, which are called Digbeth and Deritend. Now 
if these names had occurred in an old Arthurian 



QUALITY AND DESCRIPTION 213 

legend, I can imagine that it would have both 
looked and sounded romantic if we had read 
there, "as Sir Dinadan was at jousts and at 
tournament nigh the castle of Digbeth it fortuned 
that he was sore hurt by the thrust of a spear", 
and "Wit ye well, said he, that you must take 
your ship again, and that ship must bring you to 
the isle in the river fast by the place hight 
Deritend". I can imagine, too, that one of the 
imitators of William Morris, fifty years ago, 
might have written a decorative ballad, where 
these words were a refrain, and we had quaint 
lines telling how: 

"Gay knights and lovely damsels wend 
To Digbeth and to Deritend", 

and how: 

"The lusty squires their lords attend 
To Digbeth and to Deritend", 

and so forth. The fact is that the beauty which 
words have for us is partly in the sounds and 
partly in the associations, and one element in 
the associations of a word is what is suggested 
by the printed look of it, while another is the 
familiarity of the word, or its strangeness. 

But there can be no question that some words 



2i 4 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

are splendid sounds, apart from everything else. 
Indeed, sound is never out of the question when 
either the quality of a single word is being con- 
sidered, or the quality of several words as asso- 
ciated in a sentence. Nor is it always a matter 
of the beauty of the sound. Without being a 
fine sound in itself, a word may possess an 
appropriate sound for some particular use. Thus 
Stevenson once pointed out, in a famous essay, 
how much Milton's greatest prose paragraph 
owes to the sound of the words with which it 
closes: "I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered 
virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never 
sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out 
of the race where that immortal garland is to be 
run for, not without dust and heat." 

In the concluding phrase, Stevenson remarked, 
"every word ends with a dental, and all but one 
with a T"; and he adds that "the singular dignity 
of the first clause, and this hammer-stroke of the 
last, go far to make the charm of this exquisite 
sentence". I always want to set beside this 
passage from Milton one of equal nobility from 
Landor: "There are no fields of amaranth on 
this side of the grave: there are no voices, O 
Rhodope, that are not soon mute, however tune- 
ful : there is no name, with whatever emphasis of 



QUALITY AND DESCRIPTION 215 

passionate love repeated, of which the echo is 
not faint at last." Here the same effect is pro- 
duced by the same means: it is the T which ends 
the last four words that sounds the note of a 
mournful finality. 

Probably Latin owes more than has been 
generally thought of its definiteness, both in 
sound and suggestion, to the fact that so many 
forms of the verb end in a T, and that the verb 
so often comes at the end of the sentence. I have 
tested some pages of Tacitus, and I find that 
there are twelve sentences and twenty-one clauses 
that end with the letter, a total of thirty-three, 
while in the standard English translation of the 
same passages there are only three such sentences 
and five such clauses, a total of eight. It is pretty 
evident that a difference so marked as this must 
lend to Latin, in contrast with English, something 
of a harder sound generally, and in particular 
the suggestion of a more definite and final closure 
at the end of clauses and sentences. 

It is indeed rather startling to find how often 
the effect of finality is achieved in our own 
language by this particular method. In the 
Litany we have phrases like "that those evils, 
which the craft and subtlety of the devil or man 
worketh against us be brought to naught", and 



216 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

"to comfort and help the weak-hearted; and to 
raise up them that fall ; and finally to beat down 
Satan under our feet". In both cases the rhyme 
probably helps . . . "brought . . . naught" . . . 
"beat . . . feet" . . . but the main effect is in the 
final dentals . . . "brough/ ... to nough/" . . . 
"bea/ down Satan under our fee;". I once heard 
of an eccentric old clergyman who, when he 
read the last passage, always stamped his foot. 
Whatever we think of that little ritual, it does 
convey something of the trampling finish of the 
words, "and finally to beat down Satan under 
our feet". 

Dr. Johnson's famous letter to Lord Chester- 
field is one of the most effective and memorable 
things he ever wrote, and in it again the same 
effect is achieved by the same means. "The 
notice which you have been pleased to take of 
my labours, had it been early, had been kind; 
but it has been delayed till I am indifferent, and 
cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary, and cannot 
impart it; till I am known, and do not want it," 
Observe how much of the decided and final 
contempt depends upon the dentals which end 
the last clauses . . . "an</ canno/ impar/ if . . . 
an^/ do no/ wan/ i/". If you doubt the reality of 
the effect, paraphrase the clauses ... "it is what 



QUALITY AND DESCRIPTION 217 

I am unable to share ... it is what I do not 
desire". 

Sir William Watson, who is a considerable 
critic as well as a poet of genius, once alleged as 
an example of "a fact in itself impressive stated 
with unsurpassable simplicity", the words of the 
prophet, "Rachel weeping for her children, and 
would not be comforted, because they are not", 
and contended that this is "infinitely more im- 
pressive than any phrase like * because they are 
dead' could have been", since "because they are 
dead" would convey a latent impression of the 
children still existing as dead bodies, while 
"because they are not" suggests sheer annihilation. 
No doubt that is true and important, but it is 
not quite the whole truth. There are at least two 
other details, relating to sound and stress. The 
consonant that ends the word "no/" is a more 
definite and final sound than the duller dental 
that ends the word "dea^/", and there also a 
change of verbal emphasis. "Are-dead" is an 
equivalent of "died" the verb is really a sort 
of auxiliary here, and does not carry much 
emphasis. But in "are not" it is a full verb the 
equivalent of "exist" and hence is much more 
emphatic. The result is that in place of a single 
stress at the end "are-d6ad", there is a double 



2i 8 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

stress "are n6t". The double emphasis, and the 
pause between which it necessitates, accentuates 
the finality of "noT", and gives a sense of a 
hopeless end. 

In Tennyson's great line: "In seas of death and 
sunless gulfs of doubT" (though death is more 
final a conception than doubt) the effect of finality, 
as far as the sound is concerned, is conveyed by 
the last consonant. And though the word death 
also ends with a dental, the TH is so much softer 
than the T that it does not nearly so well suggest 
an end. Read the line: "In seas of doubt and 
sunless gulfs of death", and the sense is really 
rather improved, but you lose more in sound than 
you gain in sense. So the greatest lines, perhaps, 
that Shelley ever wrote achieve a melancholy 
finale by the T's which end the last three words 
of the last stanza : 



'The world is weary of the past, 
Oh, might it die or res/ a/ las/ !" 



But whether there is anything particularly apt or 
suggestive or beautiful in the sound of a word or 
not, the quality of the word largely depends upon 
the way it has been used in the past and is used 
to-day. Because language is a living thing, there 
are processes of change always going on. Words 



QUALITY AND DESCRIPTION 219 

alter slightly in meaning, and more in usage; 
some go out of use, and some that have gone out 
of use come into use once more; some gain and 
some lose in force and in dignity, and so on. 
Sometimes in the lapse of the years a word has 
lost caste through the commonplace usage of it, 
so that it cannot any longer be employed to 
express grave and lofty thoughts. Wyclif renders 
Psalm cxxi, 4: "Lo, He schall not nappe neither 
slepe that kepeth Israel", but we only use the 
word now in a trivial and familiar way, as when we 
refer to "an after-dinner nap". Milton, describing 
the Temptation, when the Devil set Christ on 
the pinnacle of the Temple, writes of this as 
"His aery jaunt", but the word has acquired a 
slighter meaning since, and we only use it with a 
note of frivolity, as when we speak of "a little 
jaunt to the seaside". Dr. Watts wrote, in his 
greatest hymn: 

"Were the whole realm of nature mine, 

That were a present far too small, 
Love so amazing, so divine, 

Demands my soul, my life, my all !" 

Now the word present has acquired a trivial 
character through its use in such phrases as "a 
birthday present", and in many hymnals the 



220 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

word has been changed to offering. It is a moot 
point as to how far anyone is justified in altering 
an author's original text, but there can be no 
question that offering here is a vast improvement 
on -present. Noise is another word that has degene- 
rated. Milton could write of the songs of the 
angels : 



u 



That we on earth with undiscording voice, 
May rightly answer that melodious noisi\ 



and the word was used in Elizabeth's time for a 
company of musicians, as in Shakespeare: "Find 
out Sneak's noise \ Mistress Tearsheet would fain 
hear some music". To-day noise means only dis- 
cordant sounds. Pomp is another word that has 
become rather debased, and in fairly recent times. 
Young can describe heaven's "sacred pomp", and 
Charles Wesley can write of the Ascension of our 
Lord: 

"There the pompous triumph waits; 
Lift your heads, eternal gates!" 

Always in Shakespeare, I think, and down to the 
eighteenth century, the word pomp seems to 
have signified merely splendid state. Now it has 
a note of insincerity, for it has come to mean very 



QUALITY AND DESCRIPTION 221 

often a parade of dignity, a stateliness that is pre- 
tentious, as when we speak of "a pompous 
manner", or "a pompous display". It is curious 
that this sense of the word existed in later Latin, 
but has only come into English apparently in 
modern times, long after the advent of the word 
itself into the language. Still, the^ modern use of 
the word is not always in the degenerate sense, 
for Matthew Arnold could write of "this pomp 
of worlds, this pain of birth", and Stevenson 
of "the incomparable pomp of eve". Perhaps the 
truth is that "pomp" still retains much of its 
original sense, and that it is rather "pompous" 
and "pomposity" that have definitely acquired a 
worse meaning. 

Another vital matter in the quality of words is 
whether they are abstract or concrete, general or 
particular, vivid or ordinary. Thus Quintilian 
observes that to tell the whole is not to tell 
everything that to say a city was "sacked", 
although the one word implies all that happened, 
will make little impression on our feelings. That 
is, if our feelings are to be deeply stirred the 
dreadful details must be narrated: we must be 
told of the actual deeds of the savage soldiery, 
the slain men, the ravished women, the burning 
homes, and all the ghastly sights and sounds. 



222 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

This is undoubtedly both true and important. 
Motley ends his account of William of Orange 
with the words, "As long as he lived, he was the 
guiding-star of a brave nation, and when he died 
the little children cried in the streets." If Gibbon 
had written that, it might have ended with: "and 
even the careless felicity of childhood was not 
indifferent to the universal lamentation.*' Macaulay 
wrote, in a reference to the pulpit oratory of the 
friars, "The dexterous Capuchins never choose to 
preach on the life and miracles of a saint, till they 
have awakened the devotional feelings of their 
auditors by exhibiting some relic of him a 
thread of his garment, a lock of his hair, or a drop 
of his blood." If Johnson had written that, it 
might have ended with: "some relic which illus- 
trated the austerity of his vocation, the period of 
his age, or the agony of his martyrdom." That is 
to say, each reference would have been generalised 
into an abstraction. But how much more vivid 
and pathetic is the direct mention of the simple 
thing 1 "the little children cried in the streets" 
... "a thread of his garment, a lock of his hair, 
or a drop of his blood." The habit of abstraction 
and generalisation does not always make even for 
dignity, and there is a serious loss in directness of 
appeal, both to the imagination and to the feelings. 



QUALITY AND DESCRIPTION 223 

Some fine effects result, however, from the 
contrast between an abstract and a concrete 
epithet. When Othello says: 

"In Aleppo once, 

Where a malignant and a turban' d Turk 
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state, 
I took by the throat the circumcised dog, 
And smote him, thus' 1 , 

the effect of the phrase is due to the contrast 
between the ethical word malignant, that describes 
the fierce mood of the Turk, and the visual word 
turban* d y that describes his characteristic appear- 
ance. The same thing occurs in Ophelia's words : 

"Whilst, like a pufFd and reckless libertine, 
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads, 
And recks not his own rede", 

where ptiff'd describes the look of the libertine, 
and reckless describes his character. So Romeo 
speaks of death as "the lean abhorred monster", 
where lean suggests the appearance of the skeleton 
which symbolises mortality, and abhorred suggests 
the sentiment which the thought of death arouses 
in the mind. Many other examples might be 
alleged. 

On the other hand a deliberate vagueness of 



224 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

language is often effective in suggesting vastness 
and remoteness. Macaulay has remarked upon 
the contrast between "the exact details'* of Dante 
and "the dim intimations'* of Milton, and has 
added with real discernment that the former are 
justified because the work of the Florentine poet 
is in its very conception a personal narrative, while 
that of Milton differs from it "as the adventures 
of Amadis differ from those of Gulliver". Milton 
is relating for the most part sublime events in a 
sublime world of the spirit where description 
can do no more than suggest the vastness of what 
belongs to a universe of immensities and infinities. 
There is therefore nothing definite: all is dim, 
vague, monstrous. Death is "the grisly Terror" 
and, 

"the other Shape 
If shape it might be called, that shape had none." 

Chaos is : 

"the hoary Deep a dark 
Illimitable ocean, without bound, 
Without dimension j where length, breadth, and highth, 
And time, and place, are lost." 

So Burke has pointed out that in Milton's lines 
describing the appearance of Satan : 



QUALITY AND DESCRIPTION 225 

"He, above the rest 
In shape and gesture proudly eminent, 
Stood like a tower. His form had not yet lost 
All her original brightness, nor appeared 
Less than Archangel ruined, and the excess 
Of glory obscured : as when the sun new-risen 
Looks through the horizontal misty air 
Shorn of his beams, or, from behind the moon, 
In dim eclipse, disastrous twilight sheds 
On half the nations, and with fear of change 
Perplexes monarchs", 

the picture consists of "images of a tower, an 
archangel, the sun rising through mists, or in an 
eclipse, the ruin of monarchs, and the revolutions 
of kingdoms. The mind is hurried out of itself 
by a crowd of great and confused images ; which 
affect, because they are crowded and confused. 
For separate them, and you lose much of the 
greatness; and join them, and you infallibly lose 
the clearness." In fact any confusion of metaphor 
(unless the metaphors are so mixed as to produce 
in the mind a shock of immediate inconsistency) 
is like a vagueness of language, and suggests what 
cannot be said; it suggests that the reality is too 
vast to be depicted in any familiar image or in 
any definite language. 

Only by the use of vague language to suggest 
an unimaginable scale of greatness could such a 



226 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

scheme as that of Paradise Lost have been 
worthily accomplished, and only a mind capable 
of vast conceptions could have thought of such a 
scheme. It has been remarked that Milton's 
other poems show a fondness for words, like 
"old", "far", "wide", that suggest immense 
reaches of space and time. 

These last words, it may be noted, are all 
adjectives, and that may serve to remind us that 
there is a special importance about the adjective, 
because it may be said, very roughly, that while 
the nouns supply the solidity, and the verbs the 
action, the adjectives are responsible for most of 
the quality of the description. The element of the 
sensuous, vivid, and picturesque, whether it is 
visual or imaginative, is largely supplied by the 
adjective. 

Thus the style of Newman is generally spare 
and austere; that of Ruskin is generally full and 
ornate. In a passage of Newman's describing 
Athens there are 28 adjectives, or 8 per cent, of 
the words used ; in a passage of Ruskin's describ- 
ing an Alpine village there are 42 adjectives, or 
12 per cent, of the words; in a passage of 
Newman's about conscience there are 24 adjec- 
tives, or 7 per cent, of the words; in a passage 
of Ruskin's on conscience there are 41 adjectives, 



QUALITY AND DESCRIPTION 227 

or 1 1 per cent, of the words. This is precisely 
what one would expect; the adjectives are rather 
more numerous (in each writer) in a descriptive 
passage than in one dealing with an ethical issue, 
and generally speaking the ornate style of Ruskin 
.employs a considerably larger percentage of 
adjectives than the more restrained style of 
Newman. It is the adjective, in fact, that supplies 
the descriptive and decorative matter, for it 
conveys most of what is told us about size and 
shape and sound and colour, and all the particular 
attributes of things. Therefore, it is abundant in 
the richer styles, but the danger is that it should 
be too frequent, and then the effect is flamboyant. 
There lies the wisdom of Pudd'nhead Wilson's 
advice "as to the adjective; when in doubt, 
strike it out 1 *. 

Take a great passage of Ruskin's, describing 
an English cathedral, and omit the adjectives, 
as far as possible: "We will go along the walk 
to the west front, and there stand for a time, 
looking up at its ... porches and the places 
between their pillars where there were statues 
once, and where the fragments, here and there, 
of a ... figure are still left, which has in it the 
likeness of a king, perhaps indeed a king on earth, 
perhaps a ... king long ago in heaven, and so 



228 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

... up to the wall of sculpture 

and . . . arcades, with heads of dragons 

and . . . fiends worn by the rain and . . . winds 

into their shape, and coloured on their 

. . . scales by the lichen . . . 

. . . and so up to the . . . towers." Then 

see what a difference is made when the adjectives 
are restored: "the straight walk ... its deep- 
pointed porches . . . the dark places ... a stately 
figure ... a saintly king . . . higher and higher 
. . . the great mouldering wall . . . rugged sculpture 
and confused arcades, shattered and grey and 
grisly . . . mocking fiends . . . swirling winds . . . 
unseemlier shape . . . stony scales . . . the deep 
russet-orange lichen, melancholy gold . . . higher 
still . . . the bleak towers." ... It is the adjectives 
that give the colours and contours, and also the 
fanciful element in the description, that is to say, 
both the sensuous and the imaginative quality. 

Or, again (with due apology for a literary 
vandalism), let us insert a few additional adjectives 
in one of Newman's descriptive passages, until 
there is as high a proportion of them as in a like 
passage of Ruskin Newman is giving an account 
of the University of Paris: "That famous school 
engrossed as its (ample) territory the whole south 
bank of the Seine, and occupied one-half, and 



QUALITY AND DESCRIPTION 229 

that the pleasanter half, of the (picturesque) city. 
King Louis had the island pretty well as his own 
it was scarcely more than a (rude) fortification; 
and the north of the river was given over to the 
(wealthy) nobles and the (humble) citizens to do 
what they could with its (unattractive) marshes; 
but the eligible south, rising from the (pellucid) 
stream, which swept around its base, to the fair 
summit of St. Genevieve, with its broad meadows, 
its (leafy) vineyards and (flowery) gardens, and 
with the sacred elevation of Montmartre con- 
fronting it all this was the (rich) inheritance of 
the University." 

Now I do not defend any of these unauthorised 
adjectives for a moment. But I would point out 
that the effect of the intrusion of these extra 
words is to make the style look more ample and 
more genial, as it were, and, on the other hand, 
less tense and less disciplined. The impression 
of a lean strength is lessened, and the sentences 
assume a more leisurely and florid character. 

A good many of Shakespeare's most memorable 
lines depend largely upon the adjective for their 
effect, and nothing could better illustrate the 
striking and suggestive quality of his epithets 
than the way that they have haunted the minds 
of other poets, and have been unconsciously 



230 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

reproduced. Thus everyone must feel that the 
only really striking use of a word in Longfellow's 
The Beleaguered City is in the lines: 

"But, when the old cathedral bell 

Proclaimed the morning prayer, 
The white pavilions rose and fell 
On the alarm} d air." 

The phrase, however, is only a variation of one 
of Shakespeare's, where Agamemnon says, in 
Troilus and Cressida : 



"Give with thy trumpet a loud note to Troy, 
Thou dreadful Ajax, that the appalled air 
May pierce the head of the great combatant 
And hale him hither." 

The most striking use of a single word, perhaps, 
in Lovelace's To Althea/rom Prison is in the lines: 

"When flowing cups run swiftly round 

With no allaying Thames, 
Our careless heads with roses bound, 
Our hearts with loyal flames." 

But once more the phrase is only a variant from 
Shakespeare, in the passage where Menenius 
says, in Cono/anus, "I am known to be a humorous 
patrician, and one that loves a cup of hot wine 
with not a drop of allaying Tiber in't." 



QUALITY AND DESCRIPTION 231 

So I have always felt sure that it was the fine 
epithet in Viola's speech : 

"Keep as true in soul 
As doth that orbld continent the fire 
That severs day from night/* 

which suggested Shelley's lines: 

"That orbld maiden with white fire laden 
Whom mortals call the moon." 

One may add at least a couple of instances where 
a haunting sentence of Shakespeare's has begotten 
a whole poem in another poet's mind. Tennyson's 
Mariana grew out of that casual reference in 
Measure for Measure^ where the Duke says, "I 
will presently to Saint Luke's: there, at the 
moated grange, resides this dejected Mariana." 
And similarly Browning's Childe Roland to the 
Dark Tower Came was developed from the words 
of Edgar's song in King Lear: 

"Child Rowland to the dark tower came; 
His word was still, Fie, foh, and fum, 
I smell the blood of a British man." 

Here, however, the line may not actually be 
Shakespeare's; the other lines certainly belong to 
a traditional rhyme. 



232 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

Sometimes a fine effect is not due merely to a 
vivid word, or the vivid use of a word, but to a 
contrast between the familiar and the unfamiliar, 
both in thought and in word, as, for example, in 
Matthew Arnold's lines: 

"A God, a God their severance ruled ! 
And bade betwixt their shores to be 
The unplumb'd, salt, estranging sea." 

"The salt sea" is a familiar phrase for an ordinary 
thought. "The unplumbed sea" is a less familiar 
phrase for an ordinary thought. "The estranging 
sea" is a less familiar phrase for a less ordinary 
thought. The description of the sea as deep and 
salt is concrete, and brings to mind those quite 
obvious attributes that are associated with the sea 
in every human mind, but for the first thought 
the obvious word, "deep", is avoided, and a less 
ordinary word is used. But the description of the 
sea as "estranging" has an imaginative quality; 
it makes us think of the sea as sundering the 
different countries, and making men strangers to 
those who dwell in other lands. It is undoubtedly 
the contrast between the plain word and the plain 
fact "the salt sea", placed between a more imagi- 
native word for another plain *act, "the un- 
plumbed sea", and the still more Imaginative 



QUALITY AND DESCRIPTION 233 

word for a more poetic conception, "the estranging 
sea" that creates the effect. "The deep, briny, 
unfriendly sea'* would give the general sense of 
the line, but you would have three ordinary words, 
instead of two less usual and more imaginative 
words, with an ordinary word between. 

There are many great passages of poetry where 
a single word seems to concentrate the whole 
effect of a line or a stanza "all the charm of all 
the muses flowering in a lonely word". A word 
never does really stand alone, and as we have seen 
much depends on the way that a pair of words, 
or a group of words, qualify one another because 
they are a happy combination or a drastic con- 
trast, in sound and significance and derivation. 
Nevertheless it is often one word that seems to 
carry all the melody and all the suggestiveness of 
a line. Think of passages like the following from 
Shakespeare, and consider what other word could 
possibly supply the place of the one in italics. 



"From forth the fatal loins of these two foes 
A pair of star-cross* d lovers take their life", 



and: 



That all the world will be in love with night, 
And pay no worship to the garish sun", 



234 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

and: 



'O how this spring of love resembleth 
The uncertain glory of an April day", 



and: 



To be imprisoned in the viewless winds, 
And blown with restless violence round about 
The pendent world", 



and: 



Like to a lonely dragon, that his fen 

Makes fear'd and talk'd of more than seen", 



and: 



The graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead 
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets." 



The same point might be illustrated from every 
great poet. The following lines from Words- 
worth may serve as further examples : 



"Once did She hold the gorgeous East in fee 
And was the safeguard of the West", 



and: 



"Breaking the silence of the seas 
Among the farthest Hebrides", 



QUALITY AND DESCRIPTION 235 
and: 



Thou, thou and all thy mates, to keep 
An incommunicable sleep", 



and: 



"Some casual shout that broke the silent air 
Or the unimaginable touch of Time." 



Doubtless almost every part of speech may be on 
occasion the word of a clause or a sentence, but 
it is noticeable that all the examples given above 
are adjectives. I suggest that the reason is that 
the adjective in its very nature specially indicates 
the quality of the thing. The noun is merely the 
name, "the East", "the Hebrides", "a sleep", 
"a touch", but nearly all that makes these 
imaginatively picturesque, appealing, memor- 
able, or unique, is conveyed in the adjectives, 
"the gorgeous East", "the farthest Hebrides", 
"an incommunicable sleep", "the unimaginable 
touch". Moreover, the thing is one, but the 
qualities of it are many, and there is a larger 
choice as to what may be said, and therefore as 
to the words in which it may be said, when you 
name the attributes of the thing than when you 
name the thing itself. To take the substantive in 
the last quotation as an example, even Shakespeare 



236 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

could hardly find another word for it if he wanted 
to say a touch, but he could describe a touch as 
coy, dreadful, golden, greedy, heavenly, mortal, 
rude, simple, soft, strained, sweet, uncivil, and 
welcome these are all adjectives that he actually 
used. The adjective has a greater chance, I think, 
of being the one suggestive word than any other 
part of speech. 

Walter Bagehot has remarked on "the imagi- 
native bareness" of much of the poetical art of 
Greece, which reached its height in Sophocles, 
where, in his greater passages, "a principal 
beauty is their reserved simplicity". There can 
be no doubt that one very important factor in 
style is restraint. I think we ought to be catholic 
enough in our taste to admire both Ruskin and 
Newman, both the ornate style and the severe 
style, since beauty is achieved in both. It is 
beyond debate that there is a noble style, both in 
prose and in poetry, that is marked by frugality 
a lean austerity, stripped of all that is redundant. 
Naturally it is, as a rule, the characteristic expres- 
sion of the highly disciplined mind, rather than 
of the opulent and imaginative mind. The real 
strength of a style often lies in this economy of 
words, and this deliberate omission of all that is 
ample and ornate. Indeed, Schiller has declared 



QUALITY AND DESCRIPTION 237 

that a masterly style is marked by what it leaves 
out was er weise verschweigt, zeigf nur den 
Meister des Stils. And when it comes to excising 
words it is most often the adjective that can be 
spared. 

It may be noted that the poets sometimes make 
an adjective serve as a noun by using some 
epithet for the thing to which it eminently 
belongs, as when Tennyson calls the sky "the 
blue 1 ': 

"and there rain'd a ghastly dew 
From the nations' airy navies grappling in the central blue." 

This is a use that has largely decreased. Milton 
could write of "the dry" and "the dank" for land 
and water. He could use "the stony" for "hard- 
ness" in a passage like: 



"For from the mercy-seat above 
Prevenient grace descending had removed 
The stony from their hearts", 

and "the sensible" for "the feeling" in: 

"our temper changed 

Into their temper, which must needs remove 
The sensible of pain." 

But such a use to-day would seem affected and, 



238 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

indeed, comic, as it does in Dick Swiveller's 
references to "the rosy", "the briny", and "the 
mazy". Yet there are examples which have 
become quite established, like "the past" for "the 
past (days)", and "the right" for "the right 
(cause)", and "the dead" for "the dead (folk)". 
Here the use is so familiar that we practically 
take the adjective as a general noun. 

The use of the adjective connects naturally 
with the use of metaphor, because the adjective 
expresses the quality of a thing, and metaphor is 
largely a more pictorial suggestion of quality. 
In fact most metaphors are a pictorial extension 
of an adjective. "Fierce" and "terrible" express 
the quality, but "fierce as ten furies, terrible as 
hell" extends the description in a vivid and 
imaginative way. 

While metaphor is naturally treated by writers 
on rhetoric as a figure of speech, it is not quite 
on the same plane as the rest of these, because it 
is involved in the very nature of language. "What 
is it all", asks Teufelsdrockh, "but metaphors, 
recognised as such, or no longer recognised? An 
unmetaphorical style you shall in vain seek for: 
is not your very Attention a Stretching-tot" The 
word attention, that is to say, is a metaphor, sug- 
gesting that the mind is stretched to grasp the 



QUALITY AND DESCRIPTION 239 

subject, as the hand is stretched out to seize 
anything. Now a great many of the metaphors 
which are implicit in words (like this one) escape 
our attention altogether, unless we are specially 
interested in words and their origins. We may 
deliberately employ a metaphorical phrase, but 
we often use a word without realising that it 
really contains a metaphor. Some of these latter 
instances are interesting, for many words embody 
faded metaphors and forgotten references. No 
one would condemn a reporter who, in describing 
a parliamentary debate, said that one speaker 
"employed some dexterous arguments", and 
another "indulged in some sinister prophecies", 
though these phrases really mean "right-handed 
arguments" and "left-handed prophecies", for 
the etymologies are not actually present in the 
mind of the reader, unless he is specially interested 
in the history of words. And so generally of the 
derivation of words, and all that they originally 
meant. We can speak of "a womanly virtue", 
though virtue is what becomes a man (vir, virtus) ; 
of "a disgusting sight", though disgust originally 
meant an unpleasant taste (dis, gustus\ and of "a 
miserable company of men who lack bread", though 
companion meant first of all one who shares bread 
with another (com, panis). So we can refer to "a 



240 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

tawdry dress" and to "a noisy bedlam" without 
realising that there is any allusion to two mediaeval 
saints, but tawdry comes from St. Audrey the 
old English form of St. Ethelreda because 
finery was sold at St. Audrey's fair, and bedlam 
derives from St. Mary of Bethlehem, whose con- 
vent in London was converted into a madhouse. 
So no one dreams of objecting to a phrase like 
"a dismal day", because, though it really means 
"a day-of-evil day", the derivation of dismal from 
dies mali is not usually in the remembrance of 
those who utter it, or those who hear it, unless 
they belong to the number of those whom Cowper 
calls: 

"learned philologists, who chase 
A panting syllable through time and space." 

Similarly no one usually thinks of astrology, or 
of the old doctrine of temperaments, when speak- 
ing of a person as "jovial", or "saturnine", or 
as "sanguine", or "melancholy" the reference 
to the planets Jupiter and Saturn, and the allusion 
to the blood and black bile of the human body are 
not actively present in the mind when the words 
are used, even though they may be known, unless 
there is some special interest in etymology at the 
moment. Again, it would be idiotic to raise any 



QUALITY AND DESCRIPTION 241 

objection to the phrase "a weekly journal", for 
journal has come to signify merely "newspaper", 
but the phrase literally means "a weekly daily", 
for journal is from jour, and jour is from dies, 
though, as a Frenchman not unnaturally remarked 
when he was told so, it has got diablement change 
en route\ It has, and the transition is dies^ diurnus y 
journuSy jour. 

But it is quite another thing where the references 
or the metaphors are obvious, and obviously 
inconsistent with each other, as when Mrs. 
Nickleby remarked, "It came upon me like a 
flash of fire, and almost froze my blood!" There 
are some interesting issues with regard to mixed 
metaphors, however, for what appears to be such 
at first sight exist in some great passages of our 
literature. There are some examples in Milton. 
He wrote in Lycidas: 

"Blind mouths! that scarce themselves know how to hold 
A sheep-hook" 

** 

Ruskin has pointed out, in a famous passage, that 
this is not "a broken metaphor, as one might 
think, careless and unscholarly", but that there is 
a compressed significance in it, since Milton was 
thinking of men whose duty it was to watch and 
to feed the flock of Christ, and "blind" suggests 



242 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

that those who ought to see cannot see, and 
"mouths" suggests that those who ought to feed 
others think of nothing but feeding themselves. 
No doubt this is true; we say we are "all ear", 
meaning that everything is concentrated for the 
moment in listening, and the elliptical sense of 
the passage in Milton is, when expanded, that: 

"Such as, for their bellies' sake 
Creep, and intrude, and climb into the fold", 

are "all mouth" neither able to see the flock, 
nor "hold a sheep-hook", nor do anything "else 
that to the faithful herdman's art belongs", but 
only to gorge themselves. 

In Paradise Lost, again, Milton wrote in the 
description of the lazar-house : 



'Sight so deform what heart of rock could long 
Dry-ey'd behold?" 



Samuel Rogers said that he once pointed this out 
to Coleridge, who told Wordsworth that he could 
not sleep all the next night for thinking of it. 
This particular example does lie on the perilous 
verge, but it may be defended as an ellipsis 
"what man, though he had a heart of rock, could 
long dry-ey'd behold sight so deform?" There 
is a real difference, I think, between an elliptical 



QUALITY AND DESCRIPTION 243 

use of metaphor and a contradictory use of it. 
It is one thing to employ a compressed phrase 
like "heart of rock" when it is plain that you 
mean "a man with a heart of rock", and then to 
speak of the man weeping; it would be another 
thing altogether to write of "a heart of rock'* 
doing what neither a heart nor a man can do. 
That is what is wrong with mixed metaphors 
properly so called. There is a fundamental incon- 
sistency in the images which no words supplied 
by the mind of the reader can make coherent. 
Thus Dr. Johnson was justified in his criticism of 
Addison's lines : 

"I bridle in my struggling Muse with pain, 
That longs to launch into a bolder strain", 

for there is an obvious incompatibility between 
the different actions of bridling a horse, launching 
a ship, and beginning a song. It is a wonder, by 
the way, that Johnson, with his slavish classicism, 
ever ventured on a censure like this in view of 
Virgil's classique inmttttt habenas, but his criticism 
is well warranted. "To bridle a goddess is no very 
delicate idea; but why must she be bridled? 
because she longs to launch, an act which was 
never hindered by a bridle: and whither will she 
launch ? into a nobler strain. She is in the first line 



244 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

a horse, in the second a boat\ and the care of the 
poet is to keep his horse or his boat from singing'' 
Sometimes a bad metaphor is warranted merely 
because it is in character with the mood of the 
utterance. When Macbeth says: 

"Here lay Duncan, 

His silver skin laced with his golden blood, 
And his gash'd stabs look'd like a breach in nature 
For ruin's wasteful entrance ; there the murderers, 
Steeped in the colours of their trade, their daggers 
Unmannerly breech'd with gore", 

the metaphors are outrageous. To compare 
the blood on the murdered man's body with gold 
lace on a silver ground, and the daggers covered 
with blood to a man's legs encased in breeches, 
is merely extravagant and ridiculous. But despite 
this there is here a real justification of a psycho- 
logical kind. The actual murderer is pretending a 
horror of the deed in order to conceal his own 
guilt, and we feel that his insincerity is reflected 
in these strained and artificial metaphors. An 
innocent man, who felt a real detestation of the 
murder, would have expressed himself more 
naturally. The extravagance of the phrases is 
appropriate in the mouth of a man who protests 
too much, and affects what he does not really feel. 



QUALITY AND DESCRIPTION 245 

So the adjective is as unfitting as it possibly 
could be, considered in itself, when Othello 

swears : 

"Now, by yond marble heaven, 
In the due reverence of a sacred vow, 
I here engage my words", 

but it is nobly justified by the speaker's mood, 
for, as Hazlitt says, "the epithet is suggested by 
the hardness of his heart from the sense of injury : 
the texture of the outward object is borrowed 
from that of the thoughts." 

Some metaphors are far-fetched, and are only 
to be justified by successful use. Tennyson writes 
of the man of lowly origin : 

"Who breaks his birth's invidious bar 
And grasps the skirts of happy chance, 
And breasts the blows of circumstance, 
And grapples with his evil star." 

Now the metaphors of breaking the bar that 
imprisons you, and seizing the garment of chance, 
personified as one who is passing by, and facing 
with a dauntless breast the blows of fate, are all 
straightforward enough, but that of grappling 
with a star is on the verge of the ridiculous. It 
might justify itself in an utterance of extreme 
passion, where depth of feeling speaks wildly, but 



246 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

it is scarcely defensible in calm and meditative 
verse. 

The main difference between metaphor and 
simile is that the metaphor implies a resemblance 
and that the simile states it. But a simile, like a 
metaphor, naturally depends for its effectiveness 
upon some real resemblance between the things 
compared, as in Dryden's happy translation of 
Persius : 

"Who, like the hindmost chariot-wheels, art curst, 
Still to be near, but ne'er to reach the first", 

where there is a real parallel between the hind 
wheels which are near the front of the chariot, 
but never at the front, and a man who never 
overtakes his task, but is always a little behind- 
hand with it. But here it is rather a matter of 
imagination than of style a question of noting 
an effective illustration rather than of any parti- 
cular manipulation of language. 

Many of the other figures of speech also seem 
to me to have no vital relation with the problem 
of style, though some of them have a very real 
and important connection with the imaginative 
power of the writer by whom they are employed. 
Thus when Shakespeare makes Isabella exclaim, 
in Measure for Measure: "O just but severe lawl 



QUALITY AND DESCRIPTION 247 

I had a brother, then Heaven keep your 
honour!" it is an example of one of the figures. 

L . G+- -~-~ 

of speech tabuTate(TT3y_jwriters on rhetoric the 
"EgureTcnown asrjprolepsis, or antk^atipnjlsabella 



anticipates her brother's death, and speaks of it 
as if it had already happened. So Keats writes 
it is probably the finest example of this kind in 
our literature in The Pot of Basil: 

"So the two brothers and their murdered man 

Rode past fair Florence, to where Arno's stream 
Gurgles through straitened banks." 

Though Lorenzo is alive and with them, he is 
already a murdered man in the intention of 
Isabel's brothers. Now these are fine touches of 
dramatic imagination on the part of Shakespeare 
and of Keats, but they have little to do with 
style. They have to do with the imaginative 
genius that makes great literature, undoubtedly, 
but they do not result from any particular choice 
or management of words, which is the real pre- 
occupation of style. "He was my brother then", 
and "So the two brothers and their slain com- 
panion", would equally represent the imaginative 
factor, and it is that which makes the greatness 
of the passages. 



VIII 
EPILOGUE 

IT must be said emphatically at the end of this 
study, as it was said at the beginning of it, that 
the whole philosophy of style depends upon the 
relatioh~~between substance and form, and that it 
is only^Fbrm with which we have been attempting 
In "alTTealfy great literature there must 




>e the substance of distinguished thought, and 
the form of distinguished language. It is true 
enough that there is no universal parity in this. 
Some writers can express their thoughts well, but 
their thoughts may not be of any very great value. 
Some writers cannot express their thoughts at all 
well, though their thoughts'may be of the greatest 
possible value. But anything that deserves to be 
called great literature must be the fine expression 
of fine thought. And the form must be the last 
word, after all, because every single thought that 
can be expressed in words is classically and 
finally expressed, sooner or later, by the writer 
who embalms it in the perfect and predestinate 
phrase. 

The reverse proof of this is that the finest 



EPILOGUE 249 

conception may be completely ruined by a crude 
expression of it. The substance of the most 
splendid poetry may be reduced to the common- 
place by being rendered into commonplace 
language. Translate Shakespeare's wonderful 
lines: 

"Daffodils 

That come before the swallow dares and take 
The winds of March with beauty", 

into "The daffodils which arrive before the 
swallow risks an appearance, and which are so 
beautiful that they fascinate the winds which 
blow in the month of March." There is nothing 
positively ugly in any of these words, and there 
is nothing really wrong wjth the construction, 
but the result is banal. The metrical effect is lost, 
of course, but what is much more vital is that the 
subtle poise and the delicate sound of Shake- 
speare's words are also gone. And on the other 
hand the most absurd doggerel may often be 
redeemed by translation into better language if 
to begin with there is any basis of thought 
in the doggerel. Thus there was nothing 
really absurd in the conception when Sir 
Edmund Gosse's housemaid wrote the remark- 
able lines; 



250 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

"O moon, lovely moon, with thy beautiful face 
Careering through the boundaries of space, 
Whenever I see thee, I think in my mind, 
Shall I ever, O ever, behold thy behind ?" 

The absurdity was only in the expression. It 
would be quite possible to convey the thought 
of the lines in respectable verse. For example: 

"O lovely moon, high in the midnight skies, 

Wandering through space the watchful stars amid ! 
I ask myself, Shall mortal sight surprise 
The rearward secret by thy splendour hid ?" 

I do not allege that this is good verse, but I do 
say that the merely ridiculous element has gone, 
because that was not in the essential thought, but 
merely in a clumsiness (and an ambiguity!) of 
the language employed in the expression of it. 

It seems to me that the whole history of our 
literature illustrates this thesis of the finality of 
style. Why is the eighteenth century, for example, 
the dreariest period in English literature? There 
is probably as much mere thought and naked 
truth in the verse and prose of that century as in 
those of any other. It was the vicious style of the 
period that has doomed it. It was because both 
the typical poetry and the typical prose of the 
age had ceased to be simple, natural, direct, 



EPILOGUE 251 

imaginative, and passionate, first, in its thought 
and feeling, and, last, in its use of language, that 
it is so commonplace. 

Suppose that the course of English literature 
were represented in a graph. I do not think that 
anyone whose critical judgment is worth anything 
would dispute that the highest points of the line 
would be in the Elizabethan and in the Victorian 
periods. That is to say, the creative impulse which 
appears in our literature with Chaucer to speak 
only of the poets for the moment attains a 
great height in the age that reaches from Shake- 
speare" To > Milton, begins to decline in the late 
seventeenth century, and is at its lowest point by 
the middle of the eighteenth. After some fifty 

_ . ^-"^ - _. - _.---' w 

years it j^eap^ars^j^th_CpTeridge and Words- 
worth, and expends itself again in the .great 
Victorian writers. TheTpresence of imagination 
and inspiration shows itself in the nobility of 
language which characterises Shakespeare, Milton, 
the seventeenth-century lyrists, and, in the later 
age, the great line of poets from Coleridge and 
Wordsworth to Tennyson and Browning. The 
absence of these great qualities reveals itself in 
the dull language of the poets of the eighteenth 
century. Almost as if they were aware of their 
lack of skyey influences the poets of the eighteenth 



252 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

century enslave themselves to a false classicism, 
and are more concerned about what they regard 
as correctness and dignity of expression than 
about anything else. This intellectual convention- 
ality reveals itself in a conventional diction a 
stock of supposedly poetical phrases that might 
almost have been kept in type for the use of those 
who wrote verse. "During the eighty years 
between 1660 and 1740," as De Quincey said, 
"there grew up that scrofulous taint in our diction 
which was denounced by Wordsworth, as techni- 
cally received for 'poetic language.* " It was the 
period when, as Wordsworth wrote, our poets 
gave themselves to: 

"The dangerous craft of culling term and phrase 
From languages that want the living voice 
To carry meaning to the natural heart." 

Now apart from the abuse of it, which is always 
absurd, there really is a defence for poetic diction. 
It exists in all poetry, as a matter of fact, and 
there is a justification for its existence. To begin 
with it is always possible to describe anything 
either in a commonplace way or in a striking way. 
It is said that Simonides, when offered a small 
price for an ode celebrating a victory in a mule- 
race, expressed his contempt for the animals, 



EPILOGUE 253 

the fjplovi, "half-asses", as they were commonly 
called. But being given a larger fee he wrote the 
ode, and in it described the mules as ae'AAcwro&ov 
Ovyarpes ITTTTWV, "daughters of storm-footed 
horses". That is merely a comic example of what 
does continually happen in poetry, in the choice 
between an ordinary word and a word that has 
some special note of dignity or rarity or sug- 
gestiveness. When Walter de la Mare writes: 

"His hound is mute ; his steed at will 
Roams pastures deep with asphodel", 

we have an example of it. "Dog" and "horse" 
would be the usual nouns in prose, "wanders" 
would be the usual verb, and "silent" would be 
the usual adjective. The justification here is, first 
of all, precisely that the words are not the ordinary 
words, and second, that two of the words at least 
have a faint flavour of the distant past. A dog 
and a horse suggest a farmer or a sportsman 
to-day. A hound and a steed suggest a king, a 
paladin, a knight-errant of the past. The choice 
of words therefore hints a remoteness in the scene. 
The language is not meant to sound like the 
description of an actual scene in the present day, 
but like that of a scene in a remote world of 
fantasy. The figures are not intended to be seen 



254 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

as in a modern photograph, but as in the waving 
folds of a faded tapestry. 

It is such considerations as these which are the 
real warrant for poetic diction. Gray said that "our 
poetry has a language to itself", and within limits 
that is true. Words like beauteous, blissful, demesne, 
dire, espouse, grisly, ire, jocund, joyous, list, lay, 
murmurous, poesy, thrall, verdurous, wist, woe (to 
mention some almost at random) would generally 
seem affected in prose: no one would feel that 
they are out of place in verse. The rarer word, 
the more elevated and the more impassioned 
word, has a natural right to be used in the expres- 
sion of the rarer moods, the more elevated thoughts 
and the more impassioned feelings. So when 
Hamlet says : 



The fair Ophelia ! Nymph, in thy orisons 
Be all my sins remembered !" 



most of the quality of the phrase depends on the 
word "orisons", with some addition from the 
word "nymph". If it had been "Girl, in all thy 
prayers be all my sins remembered!" there would 
have been nothing arresting and memorable in it. 
The dignity of those two words makes all the 
dignity of the utterance. 
, Thus there will always be some parity between 



EPILOGUE 

a poet's inspiration and his language. One odd 
little piece of evidence which connects with the 
flatness of our eighteenth-century verse is the fact 
that many words familiar in our older poetry 
went right out of use in that age, and came into 
currency again with the Lyrical Revival at the 
end of the century. An edition of Spenser was 
published in 1715 in which the meaning of the 
following words was explained, as they were 
obsolete: aghast, baleful, behest L , bootless, carol, 
craven, dreary, forlorn, plight, yore. And Prior, 
writing an imitation of Spenser in 1706, tells us 
that he retained a few obsolete words in order "to 
make the colouring look more like Spenser's"; 
among these were: behest, prowess, whilom, ween. 
All these old words, the meaning of which it was 
necessary to explain in the early years of the 
eighteenth century, are perfectly familiar to every 
reader of nineteenth-century poetry. The return 
of inspiration brought back into use the more 
romantic and impassioned words both in poetry 
and in prose, but most of all in poetry, as was 
natural. 

The whole issue is resolved by a consideration 
of what poetry really is. It is the_ function of 
poetry^ (in JDe^ Quincey's words) to make us rr feel 
vividly, and with a vital consciousness, emotions, 



SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 
which ordinary life rarely or never supplies occa- 

- ~ -V^ <r- - JT L 

sions for exciting^ and which had previously lain 
unawakened". Now this is enough to give us a 
clue to the truth about poetic diction, which is 
merely this poetry is in its very nature a more 
imaginative utterance than prose, and therefore 
the use of rarer and bolder words is natural to it. 
Words that would sound affected in prose sound 
natural in poetry, as words that would be pre- 
tentious in ordinary conversation are proper in 
oratory, because that is a more elaborate and a 
more exalted kind of speech. But the mere 
affectation of a poetic dialect is always wrong, and 
there is no excuse for a versifier who uses a set of 
stock phrases which constitute, as he thinks, the 
only proper language of poetry. 

The great modern revival in English literature 
is properly dated from the publication of the 
Lyrical Ballads in 1798, but it had many pre- 
cursors. A new simplicity, a sense of wonder, an 
awakening to nature and romance, a lyrical note 
which had been absent for a century, are found 
again faintly, here and there, in poets like Gray, 
Thomson, and Cowper. (All this is more dis- 
tinctly present in Blake and Burns, but they 
stand apart, for they are not in the literary tradi- 
tion in the same way as the other poets who have 



EPILOGUE 257 

been named.) But it has never been sufficiently 
recognised, in my judgment, that the new note 
of lyrical passion is heard distinctly, first of all, 
in Charles Wesley. The reason is plain. The 
religious spirit of the early Methodists made dis- 
tinctly for reality, passion, and simplicity. The 
following lines date from 1749: 

"I cannot see Thy face, and live, 

Then let me see Thy face, and die ! 
Now, Lord, my gasping spirit receive; 

Give me on eagle's wings to fly, 
With eagle's eyes on Thee to gaze, 
And plunge into the glorious blaze !" 

There is nothing in our literature with that 
accent between Crashaw and Coleridge. Pope 
ruled English poetry in 1 749 and for nearly fifty 
years after. Imagine those lines as Pope or one 
of his imitators would have written them, if they 
could ever have conceived the thought that the 
stanza expresses. They would probably have 
written something like this: 

*Th* Eternal none can see and still survive, 
Howe'er devotion search and wisdom strive ; 
Then let the vision blest my spirit slay, 
And bear to brighter, better worlds away ! 



258 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

Thus, borne on mighty pinions through the skies, 
Th' Elysian fields to see with daring eyes, 
The soul, once past the realms of upper air, 
Immerse within the bright effulgence there." 

Now the point of this is that the spirit of the poet 
is reflected in his diction. No doubt it is true that 
the real explanation of the Lyrical Revival is a 
rebirth of the human spirit, which manifested 
itself religiously in Methodism, and politically 
in the French Revolution, in the same century. 
No doubt it is true that the literary revival was 
in essence a return to nature, a revival of wonder, 
a new spirit of passion and simplicity. But all 
this is immediately reflected in the choice of 
words and in the use of words. 

It is a curious confirmation of what has been 
said about the artificiality of eighteenth-century 
poetry, that the most effective and memorable 
verse of the period is satire. Everyone remembers 
satirical verse like that of Pope on Addison. The 
reason is plain. When you hate there is at any rate 
reality in your feeling, and you do not attack the 
man or the abuse with muffled phrases that belong 
to a conventional diction. There is force, and 
directness, and pungency in the words because 
there is real feeling beneath the words. Nobody 
abuses his enemy in a roundabout way; he speaks 



EPILOGUE 259 

his mind plainly and bitingly because he feels 
what he is saying. The fundamental defect of the 
conventional poetry of the eighteenth century 
was that the sentiments which it expressed were 
not deeply felt, and the artificiality of the senti- 
ment was reflected in an artificiality of language. 
What is true of the poetry is equally true of 
the prose. Addison was supposed to represent 
the perfection of English prose in the eighteenth 
century; and Dr. Johnson said, " Whoever wishes 
to attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, 
and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his 
days and nights to the volumes of Addison." 
Now, as De Quincey once remarked with genuine 
discernment: "Addison shrank from every bold 
and every profound expression as from an offence 
against good taste. He dared not for his life have 
used the word 'passion* except in the vulgar 
sense of an angry paroxysm. He durst as soon 
have danced a hornpipe on the top of the Monu- 
ment as have talked of 'rapturous emotion*. What 
would he have said? Why, 'sentiments that were 
of a nature to prove agreeable after an unusual 
rate!*** (It would be difficult, by the way, to find 
the word "rapture" in our poetry between Milton 
and Thomson it does occur in The Seasons.) 
The point here is, again, that the absence of real 



260 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

feeling is reflected in the flatness of the language 
that is used. That is what is wrong with most of 
our eighteenth-century literature. 

Johnson represents all the vices of eighteenth- 
century prose, as Pope represents all the vices 
of eighteenth-century verse. Each ruled undis- 
puted in his respective domain, and each had a 
crowd of imitators who were (like the seven 
demons in the parable) worse than their leader. 
Hazlitt once remarked that Johnson was "always 
upon stilts". That is the cardinal sin of his style. 
He always reminds me of Touchstone's remark, 
"Therefore, you clown, abandon which is in 
the vulgar leave the society which in the 
boorish is company of this female which in 
the common is woman." What is wrong with 
Johnson's writing is that it is artificial and 
pompous. It is far removed from the natural 
speech of men. One of the oddities of our literary 
history is that Johnson, who bestrode the world 
of English letters like a Colossus in his day, is 
now almost forgotten as a writer, but still lives, 
and will always live, by virtue of his conversation. 
He talked good, racy, idiomatic English, as when 
he said that Lord Chesterfield's Letters "teach 
the morals of a whore, and the manners of a 
dancing-master"; when he boasted of the poets 



EPILOGUE 261 

produced by Pembroke College, "Sir, we are a 
nest of singing birds**; when he remarked that 
"the worst of Warburton is that he has a rage 
for saying something when there's nothing to 
be said*'; when he told Boswell, in talking 
of Dr. Adam Smith, "Had I known that he 
loved rhyme as much as you tell me he does, 
I should have hugged him"; and many other 
examples. 

Dr. Johnson once said of Dr. Birch that he 
was "as brisk as a bee in conversation", but that 
"when he took a pen in hand it benumbed all his 
faculties". Very much the same thing was true of 
himself. His pedantry and pomposity ruined him 
as a writer, and he is unread and unreadable 
to-day, but he lives in Boswell's unique biography, 
and lives largely by his talk. Generally, as I have 
said, that was lively and unaffected enough, but 
it would all have been spoiled if he had reduced 
it to writing himself, for he would have translated 
his sayings into the heavy medium of his own 
literary style. It might be worth while to try the 
experiment. Speaking of Churchill's large output 
of poor verse, he said, "He only bears crabs. 
But, sir, a tree that produces a great many crabs 
is better than a tree which produces only a few.'* 
("In the vegetable domain of the natural world, 



262 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

though no question as to excellence of quality 
may arise in a particular instance, yet fecundity 
is to be accounted an advantage and sterility a 
defect.") When Donaldson, a piratical Scottish 
publisher, was under discussion, and it was urged 
in his defence that he published books at a cheap 
rate, and that poor students were therefore able 
to buy them, he said, "Well, sir, he is no better 
than Robin Hood, who robbed the rich in order 
to give to the poor.*' ("Were that admitted as his 
solitary vindication, he would but resemble the 
hero of our legendary history, who plundered 
excessive wealth, that he might relieve extreme 
indigence.") Returning from a plain dinner, he 
said, "That was a good dinner enough, to be 
sure; but it was not a dinner to ask a man to." 
("The repast was indeed of sufficient excellence, 
but it was not of the uncommon excellence that 
would establish it as a proper occasion on which 
a host should proffer to his guest, or a guest 
should receive from his host, an express invita- 
tion.") 

This is taking no unwarrantable liberty with 
Johnson, for as Macaulay once observed, he 
sometimes did the thing himself, as when he said 
of The Rehearsal, "It has not wit enough to keep 
it sweet", and then, after a pause, translated the 



EPILOGUE 263 

remark into literary Johnsonese, "It has not 
vitality enough to preserve it from putrefaction." 
The plain fact is, as Macaulay says, that Johnson 
wrote "in a learned language, in a language 
which nobody hears from his mother or his nurse, 
in a language in which nobody ever quarrels, or 
drives bargains, or makes love, in a language in 
which nobody ever thinks. It is clear that Johnson 
himself did not think in the dialect in which he 
wrote.*' It may be remarked that the Johnsonian 
tradition was worthily maintained (and exag- 
gerated) for long years after Johnson's death. 
The elder Dickens, who was the prototype of 
Mr. Micawber, once wrote in a letter, "And I 
must express my tendency to believe that his 
longevity is (to say the least of it) extremely 
problematical", i.e. "I rather think that he will 
not live long." Mr. Micawber himself abounds 
with delicious examples. "I am at present, my 
dear Copperfield," remarked Mr. Micawber on 
one occasion, "engaged in the sale of corn upon 
commission. It is not an avocation of a remunera- 
tive description in other words, it does not 
pay." "It was at Canterbury we last met," he 
said again, "within the shadow, I may figura- 
tively say, of that religious edifice, immortalised 
by Chaucer, which was anciently the resort of 



264 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

pilgrims from the remotest corners of in short,'* 
said Mr. Micawber, "in the immediate neigh- 
bourhood of the cathedral/' "This was bad 
enough," said Mr. Micawber once more, when 
he was denouncing Uriah Heep, "but as the 
philosophic Dane observes, with that universal 
applicability which distinguishes the illustrious 
ornament of the Elizabethan Era, worse remains 
behind!" The vice of this kind of speech and 
writing is not merely that the English is so 
heavily latinised that it almost loses its native 
character. It is also that in an effort after dignity 
it loses directness; instead of the plain mention 
of anything by its proper name, it is referred to 
by some general term, and often by way of some 
roundabout allusion. 

As far as this last detail of indirect allusion is 
concerned, it is quite plain that all depends on 
the way it is done on the imaginative quality 
of the reference, and on the language in which 
it is expressed. There is nothing but common-* 
place in Mr. Micawber's description of Canter- 
bury Cathedral as "a religious edifice", and as 
"immortalised by Chaucer". But there is real 
distinction in the imaginative range and the noble 
language of Sir William Watson's allusion to the 
Cathedral : 



EPILOGUE 265 

"Roofed by the mother minster vast 

That guards Augustine's rugged throne, 
The darling of a knightly Past 

Sleeps in his bed of sculptured stone, 
And flings, o'er many a warlike tale, 
The shadow of his dusky mail." 

So when Mr. Micawber speaks of "that 
universal applicability which distinguishes the 
illustrious ornament of the Elizabethan Era", 
he is only naming Shakespeare in a roundabout 
way, by a clumsy attempt to say what Coleridge 
said finely and imaginatively when he called 
Shakespeare "myriad-minded". 

I said that Pope represented all the vices of 
eighteenth-century verse. Doubtless he will 
always be read for his qualities of wit and wisdom, 
and because he had a real genius for putting these 
into epigrammatic verse. But it is blasphemy to 
call him a poet. The utter absence of those high 
qualities of imagination and inspiration that alone 
cfn confer the sacred name of poet must be 
evident to everyone who is familiar with Pope's 
verse. But, again, the absence of these spiritual 
attributes is immediately shown in Pope's diction. 
There is nothing direct, vivid, and passionate in 
his use of words, because he had no imaginative 
vision, and no depth of feeling. When a thing is 



266 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

seen and felt with a poet's imagination it is 
described simply and vividly. The writer of the 
old ballad says: 

"Mery it was in the grene forest 

Among the leves grene, 
Whereas men hunt east and west 
Wyth bowes and arrowes kene." 

Here you see the green leaves in the green forest, 
and feel the beauty of the spring, because the 
poet has seen and felt it all in his mind as he 
wrote, and therefore he used the simple, direct, 
vivid words. But when Pope describes a forest he 
only sees it as if it were a painted scene in a 
theatre, and all his descriptions are in generalised 
phrases that have become mere literary con- 
ventions. A forest is always "a grove" or "a 
shade". The grove is usually "forsaken" or 
"shady", or "sylvan". The shade is usually 
"glimmering", or "pathless" or "pompous". 
There are two things that are wrong with phrases 
like these they are conventional, for they are 
taken from a stock of supposedly poetical phrases 
which every poet used; and they are indistinct, 
because the poet has not seen and felt the thing 
vividly himself, and then put what he saw and 
felt into his own words; instead, he has borrowed 
a ready-made piece of poetic diction. 



EPILOGUE 267 

This is true of nearly all the poetry of the mid- 
eighteenth century. With Pope the sky is "the 
aerial vault", or "th* etherial height'*; the sun- 
light is "the genial beams", or "the genial ray"; 
the stars are "the rolling orbs" ; the winds are "the 
auspicious gales", or "the cool gales", or "the 
spicy gales"; a river is "a crystal stream", or "a 
silver flood", or "a swelling tide"; the grass is 
"the verdant mead"; the birds are "the feathered 
choirs"; fish are "the scaly breed"; sheep are 
"the shepherd's fleecy care"; and a countryman 
is "a conscious swain". Contrast Pope's lines about 
winter: 



'Behold the groves that shine with silver frost, 
Their beauty withered, and their verdure lost !' 



and about the stars : 

"Nor all his stars above a lustre show, 
Like the bright beauties on thy banks below," 

with passages like Sackville's: 

"Hawthorne had lost his motley lyverye 
The naked twigges were shivering all for colde y \ 

and Lydgate's : 



Whose brenning eyen spercle of their lyght 
A r s do the sterres the frosty wynter night." 



268 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

Surely everyone must feel the difference between 
the muffled conventionality of Pope's language 
and the sharp, direct, vivid words of the older 
poets. 

Chaucer wrote : 

."the gardin and the well, 
That stood under a laurer alway grene 
Ful often time he Pluto and his quene 
Proserpina, and alle hir faerie, 
Disporten hem and maken melodic 
About that well, and daunced, as men told." 

This becomes, in Pope: 

"this charming place 

Enough to shame the gentlest bard that sings 
Of painted meadows and of purling springs. 
A crystal fountain spreads its streams around, 
The fruitful banks with verdant laurels crowned. 
About this spring (if ancient fame say true) 
The dapper elves their moonlight sports pursue; 
Their pigmy king, and little fairy queen, 
In circling dances gambolled on the green, 
While tuneful sprites a merry concert made, 
And airy music warbled through the shade." 

The fault of this transcription is an essential 
defect of imagination. Chaucer described the 
fairy-haunted garden naturally, as if he were 



EPILOGUE 269 

actually seeing it at the time: he did see it in his 
mind's eye. On the other hand, Pope described it 
artificially, because he only saw it so, as he might 
have seen an illuminated display at Ranelagh 
with a garden and a fountain, and ballet-dancers 
dressed up as fairies. But because the working of 
the imagination in the one poet is natural and in 
the other artificial, the diction of the one is 
natural and of the other artificial. Contrast "the 
gardin" and "this charming place"; "the well" 
and "a crystal fountain"; "a laurer alway grene", 
and "verdant laurels". Pope was merely using a 
set of stock phrases that he supposed to be 
poetic, and that he would have used on any other 
occasion whatever when it was necessary to allude 
to a garden, or a tree, or a fountain. 

No doubt, as I have said before, it is primarily 
a matter of imagination, of "the vision and the 
faculty divine", but my point is that the imagina- 
tive quality reflects itself inevitably and imme- 
diately in the simplicity and vividness of the 
language, as the absence of it is betrayed by 
woolly phrases that have become mere cliches in 
the poetic vocabulary of the eighteenth century. 
It is very significant that most of the writers of 
that age are apologetic about Shakespeare. They 
feel it necessary to deprecate his extravagant 



270 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

fancy and his extravagant language. When they 
are overawed by his genius they still feel that he 
is "wild", a sort of barbarian genius, an impulsive 
child of nature at the best. The eighteenth century 
was desperately afraid of emotion. The very fact 
that "enthusiasm" was a term of reproach, and 
the leading word in every invective against 
Methodism, is enough to illustrate that. With 
the end of the century there was a return of 
imagination and passion, and the more daring 
range of fancy and the greater depth of feeling 
inevitably found language that was simpler and 
bolder, more natural, more suggestive, and more 
musical. It could not be otherwise, for the word 
is always an echo of the thought in the mind and 
the feeling in the heart. 

As we have seen, there are great periods, like 
the age of Shakespeare and the age of Words- 
worth, marked by an astonishing revival of 
imagination and a species of intellectual inspira- 
tion, which react universally upon the men of 
genius that such an age produces, and lift the 
writing of the time, in all the varieties of poetry 
and prose, to a nobler height. But apart from such 
general influences, style remains emphatically a 
personal attribute. Le style^ cest Vhomme. The 
quality of a man's mind is inevitably expressed in 



EPILOGUE 271 

the language that he uses and in the way that he 
uses it. That selection and that management of 
words are accomplished largely by instinct. Imagi- 
nation and insight, a delicate sensitiveness to the 
quality of language, and an inspired choice of 
words, are gifts that cannot be imparted by any 
instruction, and it is certain that no one ever 
became a great writer by studying the laws of 
style. But there are laws of style, for all that, for 
there are natural principles, depending mainly 
upon the facts of sound and association, that 
govern the effective use of language. A study of 
those principles will at least teach us what to 
avoid when we write, and, what is more important 
for most people, it will enable us to appreciate 
better the charm of the great writers, precisely 
as some knowledge of the laws of harmony will 
help us to a worthier appreciation of the works 
of the great musicians. We have a rich heritage 
in our English language and our English litera- 
ture, and it is surely worth while that we should 
make some endeavour to understand why, in 
the expression of the very same truth, one 
particular sequence of English words may be 
utterly commonplace, while another has a strange 
force and a haunting beauty that enshrine it 
imperishably in the memory of men. 



NOTES 

1. De art e poetic a, 372-373. 

2. "As jarring discords at a pleasant feast." De arte 
poetica, 374. 

3. Lucretius, De rerum natura, IV, 54-6-547 

4. "The dire portals of war shall be shut with bars of 
iron." Mnetdy I. 294-296. 

5. "Then at length the accursed portals, grating on 
their horrid-sounding hinges, are thrown open." Mneld, 

vi, 573-574- cf. i. 448-449- 

6. "He in the forefront, snatching up a battle-axe, 
breaks through the stubborn doors." Mneid, II. 479-480. 

7. "But the wounded serpent twists his sinuous coils, 
stiffens his bristling scales, and hisses with his mouth." 
Mneidy XL 753-754. Cf. Georgtcs, III. 425-426. 
Mneidy II. 204-209. 

8. "The forests creak, foaming Nereus rages with his 
trident, and rouses the seas from the lowest deep." Mneid, 
II. 418-419. 

9. "All the plain is murmurous with their humming 
sound." Mneid y VI. 707. 

10. "Under his half-savage breast murmur the foaming 
surges." Mneidy X. 212. 

n. JEneid^ XL 875. 

s 



274 SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 

1 2. "Not, riddle like, obscuring their intent, 

But packe-staffe p/aine, uttring what thing they 
ment." HALL, Satires, III. 

(Prologue.) 

1 3. As Pet Marjorie made her hero die in the winter- 
time! 

"He was killed by a cannon-splinter 
Right in the middle of the winter. 
Perhaps it was not at that time 
/ cannot find another rhyme" 

14. It is perhaps worth while to notice that a similar 
effect is produced in the last line of Schiller's Kassandra: 

"Eris schuttelt ihre Schlangen, 
Alle Gotter fliehn davon, 
Und des Donners Wolken hangen 
Schwer herab auf I/ion." 

1 5. "But the Cyclops, groaning and travailing in pain, 
groped with his hands, and lifted away the stone." Odyssey^ 
IX. 415-416. 

1 6. "But terribly around Achilles arose the tumultuous 
wave, and the stream smote violently against his shield." 
Iliad, XXI. 241-242. 

17. Mneid> I. 135. 

1 8. JEneidy III. 339-340. 

19. 7/rW, II. 494-759. 

20. Georgics, IV. 336-344. 

21. Odes, I. 7. 



INDEX 



Abstract and concrete words, 

117-118, 223. 

Accent, displacement of, 175. 
Addison, 36, 170, 243, 259. 
Adjective, the, 226231, 233 

238. 

Alford, Dean, 155. 
Alliteration, 5 8-6 5 . 
Antithesis, 20 1 205 . 
Armstrong, 103. 
Arnold, Matthew, 43, 47, 151, 

176, 178, 221, 232. 
Article, the indefinite, 159-160. 
Associations of words, the, 28, 

2IO-2II. 

Authorised Version, the, 25, 
26, 45, 62, 139, 141, 143, 152, 
160, 164, 173, 182, 211, 217. 

Bacon, 30. 
Barnes, William, 116. 
Barrie, Sir James, 109, 114. 
Beautiful words, 51-54? 211- 

212. 

Beginnings, 136139. 
Bennett, Arnold, 96. 
Blair, 6 1 . 
Boiardo, 208. 
Boswell, 105, 261. 
Bridges, Robert, 191. 
Bronte, Charlotte, 78. 
Browne, Sir Thomas, 14, 147. 
Browning, 56, 84, 85, 86, 105, 

191, 192, 231. 
Bunyan, 96, 123. 
Burke, 126, 152, 224. 
Butler, Bishop, 20. 
Byron, 52, 79, 99, 124, 149. 



Caesar, 164. 

Campbell, 61. 

Campion, 141. 

Carew, 141. 

Carlyle, 86, 238. 

Carroll, Lewis, 29, 209. 

Changed meaning of words, 9 i 

93- 
Chaucer, 268269. 

Chesterton, G. K., 106. 

Cicero, 174. 

Coleridge, 49, 53, 63, 129, 

189. 
Common Prayer, the Book of, 

61, 91, 121, 160, 215, 216. 
Conjunctions, the, 163166. 
Cowley, 154, 184. 
Cowper, 104, 1 08, 1 8 8, 189, 

190, 240, 256. 

Dante, 224. 

Degeneration of words, 219 

223- 
De Quincey, " 14, 16, 18, 155, 

252, 255, 259. 
Dickens, 79, 263. 
Dionysius of Halicarnassus, 162. 
Donne, 143, 145, 154. 
Drummond of Hawthorn den, 

145. 
Dryden, 32, 42, 124, 142, 153, 

168, 169, 173, 246. 

Eighteenth-century literature, 

251. 

Eliot, George, 78. 
Endings, 143150. 
Etymology, 87-91, 239-241. 



276 



SOME SECRETS OF STYLE 



Flaubert, 73, 156. 

Form and substance, 17-18, 

248. 

Fox, 72. 
French words in English, 27, 

ii3> 132-135- 

Gibbon, 199-205, 222. 
Gilbert, Sir William S., 92,178. 
Goldsmith, 154. 
Grainger, 104, 105. 
Gray, 43, 77, 78, 254, 256* 

Hall, Bishop, 154, 274. 
Hazlitt, 170-172, 245, 260. 
Herbert, George, 84, 192. 
Herrick, 119, 120. 
Homer, 162, 206, 209. 
Hood, 124. 
Horace, 19, 31, 207. 

Interruptions, 172-175. 
Inversions, 138-140. 

James, Henry, 77. 

Jerrold, Douglas, 84. 

Johnson, Dr., 100, 124, 125, 
126, 147, 170, 184, 194-200, 
216, 222, 243, 259, 260, 261, 
262, 263. 

Johnson, Lionel, 151. 

Jonson, Ben, 136. 

Keats, 32, 34, 47, 49, 50, 52, 
98, 100, 133, 148, 155, 247. 

Landor, 155, 214. 

Langland, 58. 

Latin words in English, 26, 27, 

113* XI 5> 116-132. 
I^cky, 8 1. 
Length of sentences, 194, 199. 



Letters, sound of, 30-51, 214- 

218. 
Long and short words, 120- 

121. 

Longfellow, 230. 
Longinus, 164. 
Lovelace, 120, 230. 
Lowell, 1 3 . 
Lucretius, 32. 
Lydgate, 267. 
Lyrical Revival, the, 77, 255. 

Macaulay, 79, 194-200, 204, 

222, 224, 263. 

Malory, 212. 
Mare, de la, Walter, 253. 
Marlowe, 148. 
Marvell, 32. 

Maundeville, Sir John, 160. 
Meredith, George, 84. 
Metaphor, 238246. 
Metre, aptness of, 186-192. 
Milton, 28, 32, 33, 35, 36, 39, 
40, 49, 61, 66, 67, 68, 69, 72, 

75> 79> XI 9> J 27> 14, J 5> 
151, 157, 162, 163, 179, 184, 

2O7, 2O8, 214, 219, 221, 224, 
225, 226, 237, 241, 242. 

Misuse of words, 78-80. 
Monosyllables, 1 6 31 64. 
Morley, Lord, 155. 
Motley, 222. 
Movement, 166, 177-180, 191- 

192. 
Miiller, Max, 71. 

Newman, 226, 228, 229, 236. 
Morris, John, 61. 

Obscurity, 8387. 
Patmore, Coventry, 65, 100. 



INDEX 



277 



Persius, 31, 246. 

Plato, 30. 

Poe, Edgar Allan, 48, 51. 

Poetic diction, 254-255, 266- 

269. 

Pomposity, 103-105, 261-264. 
Pope, 30, 34, 42, 104, 108, 133, 

169, 185, 257, 258, 260, 265- 

269. 

Prior, 255. 

Proper names, 146-149. 
Punctuation, 8 2-8 3 . 

Quantity, 181. 

Quiller-Couch, Sir Arthur, 107. 
Quintilian, 83, 98, 156, 221. 

Raleigh, 149. 

Repetitions, 141-143, 150-156. 

Ruskin, 22, 147, 155, 226-228. 

Sackville, 267. 

Saxon words, 116 118, 129- 

131- 
Schiller, 237. 

Scott, 14, 55, 137. 

Shaw, George Bernard, 70, 

137- 
Shelley, 20, 43, 44, 52, 144, 

151, 166, 183, 218, 231. 

Shakespeare, 1 6, 21, 45, 57, 59, 
66, 67, 79, 80, 8 1, 94, 99, 119, 
124, 127, 155, 160, 164, 166, 
167, 175, 176, 182, 183, 186, 
187, 188, 220, 223, 229-231, 
*33> 2 34> 2 36> 244, 245, 246, 
249, 265, 269, 270. 

Sidney, Sir Philip, 97, 112, 
146. 

Simonides, 253. 

Spenser, 42, 181, 255. 



Stevenson, R. L., 109, 193, 214. 
Style, definition of, 13, 16. 
Swift, 8 1, 134. 
Synonyms, 74. 

Tacitus, 120, 215. 

Tennyson, 32, 37, 38, 39, 40, 

4 1 * 43> 4 6 > 47> 4 8 > 49> 5> 5 2 > 
53, 64, 85, 106, 107, 139, 142, 

151, 165, 175, 177, 218, 231, 



Thompson, Francis, 56, 100, 

131, 144, 149. 
Thomson, 103, 256, 259. 
Trench, Archbishop, 134. 
Twain, Mark, 185, 227. 

Vagueness, 224-226. 

Villon, 207. 

Virgil, 32, 33, 35, 47, 50, 173, 

174. 

Vocabulary, extent of, 71-72. 
Vowels, range of, 54-57- 

Watson, Sir William, 77, 129, 
172, 217, 264. 

Watts, Dr., 219. 

Wesley, Charles, 220, 257. 

Wilson, Thomas, 59. 

Wodehouse, P. G., 158. 

Words, the sound of, 23, 24. 

Wordsworth, 20, 36, 44, 50, 52, 
53, 64, 105, 108, 120, 127, 
128, 130, 131, 144, 145, 148, 
149, 177, 180, 234, 235. 

Wyat, Sir Thomas, 141, 193* 

Wyclif, 1 1 6, 219. 

Xenophon, 164. 
Young, Edward, 220.